Small, private, religious-based, and running an athletics department on a rather modest budget with teams playing in a rather modest gym, Valparaiso is precisely the type of school that makes NCAA Division I basketball so much fun.
Valpo’s uniqueness was on display again Tuesday night after the Crusaders had wrapped up an authoritative 60-44 win over Saint Mary’s to clinch the school’s first-ever trip to the NIT semifinals. As the final buzzer sounded, students at the Lutheran-affiliated school quickly spilled onto the court at the Athletics-Recreation Center (a.k.a. The ARC), but almost in an orderly fashion. There was no running over security guards, no taunting of opposing players, but there soon was a good-sized group of fans jumping up and down around center court.
And then, they waited, patient but expectant for the teams to complete their handshakes. Once they did, the players made their way through the group of fans, celebrating-together. Slapping five with fans, students, in many cases likely people they know, it was a collaborative effort. Eventually fans and team joined in a huge circle touching the perimeter of the sidelines and baselines on the court, as Valpo assistant coach Roger Powell led a prayer.
It was beautiful, one of those classic examples of exactly what we hope for college sports to be. This was a true celebration with team and fans together, and also a deserved one for all.
Valparaiso continued a mighty impressive postseason run, winning in knockout fashion a clash featuring one of the nation’s best offenses against one of its top defensive teams. Valpo absolutely stoned one of the most efficient offenses in the country, holding the Gaels to just 13 second half points and becoming the first Horizon League team to advance to the NIT semis since Detroit in 2001. A game that was back-and-forth for 20 minutes-St. Mary’s actually got the better of the first half, holding a 31-28 lead at halftime-turned into a showcase for the Crusaders’ size, length and defensive prowess, as well as the individual stardom of Alec Peters.
The junior forward dominated, scoring 20 points and adding eight rebounds and five assists. He was the best player on the court, displaying the star power and ability to take over a game in so many ways that would’ve made Valpo so dangerous if it had been in the NCAA tourney as it should have been.
The Crusaders have romped through three rounds of the NIT, beating Texas Southern, Florida State and now St. Mary’s all by at least 11 points each. Valparaiso was especially impressive against FSU in the second round, in control throughout against an ACC team with all the high-major size and athleticism one could want-the exact type of squad a team like Valpo supposedly can’t measure up to, if one is to believe TV pundits or the NCAA selection committee.
Valpo’s run is starting to bear a resemblance to that made by Bradley in 1982. The Braves that year were the biggest NCAA Tournament snub from what was then a 48-team field, with coach Dick Versace loudly protesting and calling the selection process “a travesty.” Instead of brooding, though, Bradley plowed through competition to win the NIT title, blowing through the likes of Syracuse, Tulane, Oklahoma and Purdue and winning five straight by an average of 13 points per game.
Valparaiso doesn’t need to win the NIT to prove its worth this year, but it just might do so anyway. The Crusaders now face BYU in the semifinals, and there is no team left in the tourney that one would say is definitively better. In fact, Valpo just might be the favorite, and there could be another party in just over a week in New York City.
- Another NIT semifinalist punched its ticket to Madison Square Garden as BYU outlasted Creighton 88-82 in Provo. Five players scored in double figures for the Cougars, who have made a very nice run themselves. Star senior guard Kyle Collinsworth was limited in this one due to a bout with the flu, but hopefully he is better by next week and the country is left with a fitting final impression of one of the all-time great all-around players in college hoops.
- New coaching hires continue to be announced almost daily. Todd Simon was introduced Tuesday as the new coach at Southern Utah. Simon was the interim coach at UNLV this season and replaces Nick Robinson.
- Word late Tuesday night also was that former Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins will be taking over as coach at Central Florida. Dawkins was recently the coach at Stanford for the past eight years. Interesting to note is that the Orlando Sports Daily reports that St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt also interviewed for the position.
- An item missed from Monday was Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt announcing his resignation, ending his second term at the school. Shyatt will always be remembered warmly for getting the Cowboys to the NCAA Tournament in 2015 for the first time in 13 years. As always, you can follow all the coaching changes right here.
- Providence guard Kris Dunn officially announced on Tuesday that he is entering the NBA Draft and will hire an agent, officially forgoing his final year of college eligibility. This is news to absolutely no one if they’ve been following the team this year, as Dunn and PC coach Ed Cooley have been forthright all year that this would be his last season as a Friar (the school’s Twitter account even referenced his last home game on the team’s Senior Night).
- Finally, the basketball world is thinking of Turner Sports announcer Craig Sager, after word leaked out yesterday that his leukemia is again progressing. Sager is best known for his sideline work on NBA games and also has done work on NCAA Tournament games.
- The remaining two NIT quarterfinals are played, starting with Florida at George Washington (7 p.m. EST, ESPN). The Gators are the higher seed but will travel for this one due to renovations going on at the O’Connell Center. The Colonials are aiming for their first-ever trip to New York City for the semifinals, while Florida is going for its fourth all-time and first since 2008. The game following that has Georgia Tech on the road at San Diego State (9 p.m., ESPN), with both schools looking for their second-ever trip to the semis.
- The CBI semifinals have maybe the hottest team left in Morehead State-winners in eight of its last nine-at Ohio and Vermont at Nevada.
- Three of the four CIT quarterfinals are held, with Grand Canyon at Coastal Carolina, Ball State on the road at Columbia and UC Irvine at Louisiana-Lafayette.
Wishing all a good Wednesday.