VALPARAISO, Ind. – I recently visited this small college town an hour southeast of Chicago – home to popcorn maven Orville Redenbacher, by the way – to see perhaps the best mid-major team in college basketball this year. My spot was right behind Valparaiso’s 41-year-old fifth-year head coach Bryce Drew, and I had no idea that would mean I had the best seat in the house.
Drew’s jacket came off; his jacket went back on. The game got physical, and so did Drew’s body language. “They foul all the time!” he pleaded with a ref. When there was no foul after Valparaiso’s point guard drew contact on a fairly out-of-control drive to the rim, Drew went nuts. “This is terrible!” he shouted six times, before refs finally called him for a technical.
With his movie-star looks and his stage-actor histrionics – face contorting in anger or confusion, body falling to the floor as if he were shot, constant jabbing at refs for not calling arm bars on opposing defenders – Drew might be the single most exciting coach to watch in all of college hoops.
The words exciting and sexy, however, do not apply to Drew’s team. The Crusaders have secured their fourth Horizon League title in five years on the back of impenetrable defense that ranks fifth in the nation in efficiency on KenPom.com, solid rebounding, a deep bench and a balanced attack. If you’re looking for one word to best describe the reason for Valpo’s success, it’s experience. The school’s arena has the least sexy name in college basketball – the Athletics Recreation Center – and its star player, junior Alec Peters, captures this team’s workmanlike, winning approach to college basketball when he describes his own game in the most self-effacing way possible.
“It’s an old-school game,” Peters told me recently. “I don’t have the overwhelming athleticism. I don’t have the crazy hops or the dribbling skills. I just try to outwork my opponents and get the dirty buckets.”
Valpo is riding those dirty buckets all the way to a 24-5 record, a ranking of 31st in KenPom’s system – and, I fear, a resume that, if the Crusaders don’t win the Horizon League tournament and secure the conference’s automatic bid, could mean an unfair exclusion from the NCAA tournament.
(A quick note on that: The NCAA tournament selection committee values good wins more than anything. The problem with Valpo is it simply hasn’t had the opportunities. One reason is that it’s tough to get high-major teams to play them because those high-major teams know Valpo is a tough out. The other is that teams in the Horizon League simply don’t have great RPIs. We spend so much time talking about top-50 wins and why a team like Kansas has the best resume in the country because it has more top-50 wins – nine – than anyone else. But Valpo has played exactly two games against teams with top-50 RPIs: a six-point loss at Oregon on Nov. 22 and a six-point win over Oregon State two days later. I worry that if Valpo doesn’t win the Horizon League tournament, the Crusaders could end up like Murray State did a year ago: a team that did nearly all it could do to make the tournament, then ended up on the outside looking in. I really hope that doesn’t happen.)
Anyway. Back to what makes this team tick. The Crusaders remind me a bit of last year’s Northern Iowa team that was a five-seed in the NCAA tournament, and Northern Iowa last year was a team that reminded me of Tony Bennett’s recent teams at Virginia: ruthlessly efficient on defense, with great coaching and an excellent sense of its identity.
Drew – he of the famous Bryce Drew Shot in the 1998 NCAA tournament, who played seven seasons in the NBA and overseas – took over for his father after Homer Drew retired in 2011. He has taken some transfers, but primarily Drew went after foundational type of players to build his program. Drew found a niche recruiting international players, as three coaches on his staff played ball overseas and keep up their connections abroad. On this year’s team, two players are from Canada, one is from Croatia, another is from the Netherlands, and the best interior presence, Vashil Fernandez, is from Jamaica.
“The principles and the values of our program are the same as under my dad, the culture we set within the program,” Drew told me. “We’re at a faith-based school, so our basketball program is faith-based as well. We want our players to be trustworthy and hard-working and self-motivated and positive role models on campus and in the community.”
Like I said: It ain’t the sexiest brand. But it’s a brand that attracts the sort of kid Drew wants.
Alec Peters is Valpo’s leading scorer — by far — at 17.1 points per game.
Kids like Peters, the big, powerful 6-foot-9 forward this team revolves around. Peters makes 45.4 percent of his three-pointers and is in the top 10 nationally in offensive rating – and yet when he talks about basketball, he likes to repeat what his high school coach preached to him: “Don’t get bit by the cool bug.” The fact that he can count the number of times he’s dunked in a college game on one hand is a point of pride.
“You should never look cool playing basketball,” Peters told me. “You shouldn’t think of being the pretty boy when you’re playing basketball. Nothing is to pretty about posting up on the block and turning around for a hook shot. Nothing about me is too flashy.”
And all this brings us back to the central question about Valparaiso and about every talented mid-major team this time of year: Will they be in, or will they be out? Valpo is certainly the favorite to win the Horizon League tournament, but as Murray State proved last year, the selection committee goodwill gained from 25 wins in a row can evaporate with a heartbreaking one-point loss in a conference tournament title game.
At the Valpo game I attended, the Crusaders lost to Wright State on a tip-in with a second left. Afterward, Wright State head coach Billy Donlon went on an extended rant to pump up the team he’d just beaten: “Valpo’s an at-large team – I don’t care what anybody says,” Donlon said. “If this team played in the ACC they would finish in the top half and get an at-large. Let me tell you – this team will win games in the NCAA tournament. They’re every bit as good as the Butler teams (that went to the Final Four). They’re right there. It’s pick-a-metric in the NCAA tournament. It’s the haves versus the so-called have-nots.”
“It’ll be an absolute travesty,” Donlon continued, “if these guys don’t make the NCAA tournament.”
Drew feels the same way, even though he knows there are only certain things he can control. Valparaiso’s RPI coming into Horizon League play was 18 – and despite going 14-2 in the conference, it’s now sitting at 58. It’s the way the system is set up.
“When you’re a mid-major the hardest thing is getting into the NCAA tournament,” Drew told me. “Come conference tournament time, and you can talk to any mid-major coach out there, it’s the most stressful couple days of the year. It makes it difficult. But that’s what makes NCAA tournament exciting.”
Drew, the man who made one of the famous buzzer-beaters in NCAA tournament history, knows a little bit about excitement. Even if his team – cohesive? fundamental? old-school? boring? just a bunch of winners? – goes about things in a little bit different way.