Titans close in on tourney berth
In the 13 years since the Detroit Titans last made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, plenty of things have changed.
The tournament field expanded from 64 teams to 65 and then to 68. JNCO jeans are no longer a fashion staple. Y2K is merely the suffix on a video game. Even the South Park boys have advanced a year in school.
But all those references including the “since” qualifier might need updating.
The Titans are in Valparaiso, Ind., as one of the final two teams left in the Horizon League tournament and are a victory away from an automatic NCAA Tournament berth.
The third-seeded Titans will meet the conference’s top seed, Valparaiso, on Tuesday (9 p.m. ET on ESPN).
“We’ve come a long way as a program, and to be in this position to win a championship, to be in the tournament, would mean a lot,” senior guard/forward Chase Simon said. “There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears over the years, so this would mean a lot.
“And to make history and bring a championship to this city, that would just mean so, so much. We’ve been working so hard to get there.”
The hard-working Titans recently received a resounding endorsement from a coach who knows a thing or two about going deep into the NCAA Tournament.
Brad Stevens, who coached Butler in the previous two national title games, called Detroit a “tough out” after his Bulldogs lost to the Titans for a second time this season. He also said the Titans are a “big-time talent.”
That big-time talent has shined through in this tournament run. The Titans have rattled off three consecutive statement victories, beating Loyola at home in the opening round then traveling to Valparaiso, Ind., where they demolished Youngstown State in the quarterfinals and edged Cleveland State in the semis.
In the win over Cleveland State, sophomore point guard Ray McCallum Jr. treated the rim like an all-you-can-eat buffet, scoring 26 on 7-of-10 shooting from the field and 11-of-13 from the line.
“I think I’m just playing the game comfortable,” McCallum Jr. said. “You know, taking good shots, trying to find my teammates when they’re open, and if they’re not, finding an open lane to the basket, or an open shot.
“I’ve been trying to stay aggressive, get to the free-throw line and concentrate on making my free-throws.”
He’ll have to stay aggressive because a victory over Valparaiso has been as elusive as a Yeti for the Titans, who have dropped two close games to the Crusaders.
The Titans almost won at Calihan Hall on Jan. 6, but Eric Buggs hit a game-winning layup as time expired to lift the Crusaders to a 73-71 road victory.
On Feb. 2, the Titans came into Valparaiso and ran up a 10-point second-half lead, only to see it slip through their fingers — and end up in Ryan Broekhoff’s. He scored 26 points en route to a 78-73 Crusaders win.
In order to beat Valparaiso on Tuesday, the Titans must first contain Broekhoff.
“We have nothing but respect for him,” Titans coach Ray McCallum said of Broekhoff, the Horizon League Player of the Year. “He’s the player of the year, so he’s earned that.”
Broekhoff has been playing out of his mind all season but has turned the dial to 11 recently. The last time the Titans saw him, the 26 he scored were aided by a 6-of-6 mark from beyond the three-point arc.
On Saturday night, Broekhoff scored 19 points against a stingy Butler defense, tacking on 16 rebounds for an athletic crescendo.
That’s why the Titans are putting Simon on Broekhoff. The two are identical in size (6-foot-7, around 215 pounds), and if anyone in the Horizon League is athletic and determined enough to handle Broekhoff, it’s Simon.
“We’ve already switched up some matchups, so I’ll be guarding him for the duration of the game,” Simon said. “I’m going to be physical with him, contest all of his shots and make him put the ball up on the floor. He’s a competitive guy, but so am I.”
If it all starts on defense for the Titans, then Broekhoff is ground zero. Stop him and the Crusaders have only one other player averaging double-digits in scoring, Kevin Van Wijk at 14.3 points per game.
A wild card for the Crusaders might be the emergence of sixth man Ritchie Edwards, a junior transfer who is averaging 9.4 point in 17 minutes per game.
“I think we’ve got the best sixth man in the conference in Eli Holman, but I think with Ritchie coming in, he’s as good as anyone,” coach McCallum said. “He’s won games for them off the bench. He was a factor at our place. He’s instant offense.”
If they can rebound well, control the pace of the game and limit Valparaiso’s three-point opportunities, especially in the transition game, coach McCallum says they have a good chance Tuesday.
As he likes to call it, “choking off the three” was a problem in the previous two meetings. Valparaiso made 20 from behind the arc to the Titans 10, a 30-point disparity coach McCallum says was not easily neutralized.
But McCallum Jr. thinks the Titans have an answer for neutralizing the Crusaders this time.
“Our defense is it for us,” he said. “We’ve just had a different game plan — try to shut down each team and their scorers, limit their three-point attempts — and that’s what we’ve been doing.
“It’s been successful. So that’s what we’ll try to do tomorrow, and I think we’ll be alright.”
Note: Titans starting small forward Doug Anderson, who suffered a shoulder stinger on Saturday, was cleared to play against Valparaiso.