Given his status as an all-time NCAA Tournament hero at Valparaiso, one would think Bryce Drew could not do much of anything quietly at his alma mater.
So cozy are the surroundings at a small school like Valpo, though, that a former NBA first round draft pick who hit one of the great shots in NCAA history and followed his father as the program’s head coach can build a formidable program and few would know about it.
Almost silently, Valparaiso had a terrific 2014-15 season, posting a 28-6 record and winning the Horizon League regular season and tournament championships. The Crusaders also just missed posting a huge upset in the NCAAs, losing to Maryland by three points.
Anchored by a sticky defense with the length of players like 6-foot-11 center Vashil Fernandez and 6-8 guard E. Victor Nickerson-as well as the team’s 6-9 scoring machine Alec Peters- Valparaiso was one of the top defensive teams in the country. The Crusaders ranked sixth nationally in field goal percentage defense (38.2%) and also in the top 20 in rebound margin (13th, +6.9) and scoring defense (17th, 59.8 ppg).
Drew has mixed in transfers with some sharp recruiting to build a program very similar to that of his father Homer. Valpo has won 22, 26, 18 and 28 games in his four years as head coach, including three Horizon regular season titles and two NCAA Tournament appearances in the last three years.
Clearly, Drew’s name is not unknown in the coaching and athletic director community, as his name has come up at least as a secondary candidate at a number of jobs the past few years, including at Iowa State this summer. At this point, though, he’s a perfect fit at Valpo, a place where he and his family are and forever will be revered.
Valparaiso’s re-emergence should not obscure the fact that the Horizon League regular season race last year actually was a very good one. The Crusaders, Cleveland State, Oakland and Wisconsin-Green Bay all went into their conference finale with a chance to win the league title. At home for the conference tourney, Valpo narrowly defeated Cleveland State and then Green Bay for the league tournament title.
As a whole, the Horizon finished right around the middle of Division I-15th of 32 conferences, according to CBSSports.com RPI numbers. That’s a pretty good representation, as the league continues to frequently have a team hanging on the fringe of at-large conversation for the NCAAs, but has now gone six straight years with just one bid to the tourney.
Since 2002, the Horizon League’s tournament format included a double-bye for its No. 1 and 2 seeds, and since 2004 the extra carrot was added rewarding top seeds with hosting the second round and semifinals, with the top remaining seed playing host to the championship game. Despite all of those reinforcements for regular season champions, entering 2015 top seeds had won just six of the last 11 Horizon tourneys, including three of the previous four years.
Just as it did two years earlier, Valparaiso capitalized on being the top seed-barely. The Crusaders won a 60-55 grinder over No. 4 Cleveland State in the semifinals, and then shut down No. 2 UW-Green Bay 54-44 in the title game. Valpo held the Phoenix to 30.2% shooting and dogged Keifer Sykes, double-teaming him repeatedly to throw the UWGB offense out of sync.
Green Bay got to the title game by knocking off a plucky Illinois-Chicago team that made a nice run through the bracket in what turned out to be the conclusion of Howard Moore’s tenure as coach. The No. 6 seed Flames edged No. 7 Wright State 60-57 in the first round and then upset No. 3 Oakland 72-69 in the second round to get to the semifinals. UIC put a scare into Green Bay for a while, too, leading by a point at the half before the Phoenix pulled away for a 70-56 win.
Other games saw No. 5 Detroit eliminate No. 8 Youngstown State 77-67 in a first round game before the Titans fell to Cleveland State 70-53 in the second round. Defending Horizon tournament champion Wisconsin-Milwaukee was not a part of the conference tournament due to NCAA APR sanctions making the Panthers ineligible for postseason play.
Player of the Year: Keifer Sykes, G, Sr., UW-Green Bay
Freshman of the Year: Paris Bass, G/F, Detroit
Defensive Player of the Year: Vashil Fernandez, C, Sr., Valparaiso
Sixth Man of the Year: Jubril Adekoya, F, So., Valparaiso
Coach of the Year: Bryce Drew, Valparaiso
Kahlil Felder, G, So., Oakland
Anton Grady, F, Jr., Cleveland State
Trey Lewis, G, Jr., Cleveland State
Alec Peters, F, So., Valparaiso
Keifer Sykes, G, Sr., UW-Green Bay
- Valparaiso won both the Horizon League regular season and tournament titles for the second time in three years. The Crusaders now also have won three of the last four regular season championships.
- UW-Green Bay made its second straight NIT appearance and fourth in school history. In addition to 2014, the Phoenix also appeared in the tourney in 1990 and 1992.
- The Phoenix also had the Horizon’s most notable non-conference victory, winning at Miami (Fla.) 68-55 in December. UWGB also split a home-and-home with NCAA tourney darling Georgia State and Valpo blew out underdog darling Murray State 93-58 in November. Also, Wright State had a disappointing season, but the Raiders had two of the league’s better non-conference wins, sweeping and home-and-home with NCAAs participant Belmont.
- Oakland’s Felder ranked second nationally in NCAA Division I in assists per game (7.6) and was third in minutes played per game (38.3), while teammate Corey Petros was 10th in field goal percentage (60.2%). UIC’s Jay Harris was ninth in the nation in free throw percentage (89.8%).
What we expected, and it happened: There was no lock Horizon favorite coming into the season, but UW-Green Bay was the closest thing, and the Phoenix remained near the top of the league for a second straight year.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Wright State appeared to be on steady enough footing to stay at least in the middle of the Horizon, if not challenge for the title. Instead, the Raiders sunk to 11-20 overall and won just three league games.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: The opposite of Wright State was Valparaiso, a team that we figured would stay in the first division but wouldn’t have expected to win the league regular season and tournament titles and very nearly snag an NCAA Tournament win.
Team(s) on the rise: Not a lot of strong candidates here at first glance, but Valparaiso clearly rose last year and with Alec Peters should stay near the top of the Horizon for at least another year or two. The Crusaders also have the potential to make some national noise this year.
Team on the decline: Cleveland State. It’s a shame what has happened at CSU, a poster child for the reform that was and in some areas still is needed in transfer rules. The Vikings have lost three significant players to transfers in the last year, all three of them first team all-Horizon picks. A team that could’ve been threatening for an NCAA at-large bid instead is now in near-rebuilding mode.
2015-16 Conference Outlook
In many ways, Valparaiso’s 2014-15 performance came a year ahead of schedule. The Crusaders had just two seniors on their roster, only one-Fernandez-who was a significant contributor. That alone makes Valpo a heavy favorite to repeat as champions, and there are rumblings this summer that Fernandez could receive one more year of eligibility, which would make Bryce Drew’s team even more intriguing to follow on a national basis. (Late note: indeed, Fernandez is returning, which will make the expectations for the Crusaders almost sky high for 2015-16).
Exactly who will be the Crusaders’ top competition is a real question. UW-Green Bay, Cleveland State, Oakland, and even UW-Milwaukee and Detroit-all of them lose some of their main firepower. Oakland might be the best pick despite losing big man Corey Petros because the Golden Grizzlies return the electric Kahlil Felder and talented forwards Jalen Hayes and Tommie McCune, plus add Iowa State transfers Percy Gibson and Sherron Dorsey-Walker.
Green Bay has enough experience returning from teams that won 48 games over the last two years that the Phoenix should at least stay in the hunt under new coach Linc Darner. Milwaukee returns virtually everyone but excellent guard Steve McWhorter, and the Panthers will be postseason-eligible again. Detroit brings back most of its team save for Juwan Howard Jr.
Wright State could be poised for a nice rebound season. The Raiders were 8-4 at one point last year but fell apart late and lost their last 10 games. Cleveland State will be competitive but needs to locate a lot of firepower after losing so much talent. UIC will also be interesting to watch under new coach Steve McClain. Youngstown State will have one of the very best post players in the league in Bobby Hain but returns little else and will likely play the role it so often does in the Horizon as an entertaining offensive team facing a major uphill climb.
Finally, the Horizon is back up to 10 members with the addition of Northern Kentucky. The former Atlantic Sun is located just outside the Cincinnati area, which will make it a natural travel partner for Wright State (just over an hour away in Dayton). The Norse were once an NCAA Division II power and had improved into a mid-pack team in the A-Sun, but are taking a step up in competition with the Horizon. NKU could surprise, but more likely will be battling Youngstown State to stay out of the cellar this year.