Mid-major report: Valparaiso aiming to be more than an underdog

After nearly upsetting Maryland in last year's NCAA tournament, Valparaiso has all five starters back and is aiming for a deep run in March.
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When the 2015 NCAA tournament bracket came out and pundits began analyzing every matchup, seed and snub, one of the trendiest Round of 64 upset picks was No. 13 Valparaiso over No. 4 Maryland in the Midwest Region. The Crusaders had won a school-record 28 games and were a team with great size, defense and perimeter shooting—all keys in March. Valpo nearly did pull off that upset bid, taking the Terrapins to the brink before falling, 65–62.

That Valparaiso team was quite good. This year’s team could be even better.

The Crusaders returned nearly everyone from their 2014–15 squad, including all five starters. Retaining that kind of nucleus is rare in a sport that makes yearly headlines for transfers and early entrants to the NBA draft.

After Valpo lost that heartbreaker to Maryland, head coach Bryce Drew told reporters there were “a lot of tears” in the Crusaders locker room. Not just because his team lost, but also “because of the friendships and camaraderie and brotherhood that we've had together.”

That brotherhood is back together, and its early exit in 2015 has likely only strengthened the players’ resolve to get what would be Valparaiso’s first tournament win since 1998, the year Drew made March Madness history.

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The tools are all there—with a junior- and senior-laden team, Valpo has one of the most experienced squads in the country. It has an all-conference caliber player in junior forward Alec Peters, who’s averaging 17.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game and shooting 45% from three-point range. And then there’s the Crusaders’ defense. Opponents are averaging just 57.4 points per game, the fifth-lowest total in the country. Valparaiso ranks sixth in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency, and it excels at limiting opponents’ two-point shooting (42.4%, 37th in the nation) and offensive rebounding (23.5%, 15th nationally).

The Crusaders are 9–2 and boast four kenpom.com top-100 wins, over Iona, Rhode Island, Oregon State and Belmont. While it’s unlikely, it’s not inconceivable to think they could win out the rest of the way, or at least come very close to it—a rematch with Belmont on the road is their biggest test remaining in the regular season, and they were the runaway preseason pick in the Horizon League for a reason.

Injuries are always a concern (sophomore guard Tevonn Walker, the team’s second-leading scorer, has missed four straight games with a knee sprain), but topping last year’s record 28-win mark is certainly in play. Don’t be surprised to see Valpo back in the Big Dance, and don’t be surprised to see it once again as a popular first-round upset pick.

Only this time, Bryce Drew’s team just may pull it off.


Game of the Week: Iona at Rhode Island (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET)

Rhode Island’s ceiling dropped when star guard E.C. Matthews tore the ACL in his right knee in the season opener and was lost for the year, but considering the circumstances the Rams have held tough. They’ve yet to grab a marquee win, but they had close losses to Valparaiso (58-55) and Providence (74-72) and are kenpom.com’s No. 51 team. Both Rhode Island (6-4) and Iona (3-3) could really use this win.

Player to Watch: Davidson guard Jack Gibbs

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​You may know Gibbs as the guy who dropped 41 points for Davidson earlier this month with alum Stephen Curry watching from the stands. That was an impressive showing, but don't think it was simply a lucky night. Through eight games this season Gibbs already has three 35-plus point efforts, and last week he scored 19 against North Carolina. His 25.3 points per game average only gets more remarkable considering he’s shooting 54% from the floor—as a 6-foot guard. Gibbs takes nearly a third of Davidson’s shots when he’s on the floor and is very efficient, with a true shooting percentage of 68.7%, according to kenpom.com.

Gibbs will get a chance to shine on the big stage on Sunday, when his 7–1 Wildcats play Pitt at Madison Square Garden in the Gotham Classic (noon ET, ESPNU).

Stat of the Week: 154–10

That was Gonzaga’s all-time record at the McCarthey Athletic Center before the Bulldogs fell to UCLA on Saturday night, 71-66. The Zags already have two home losses this season, the first time that’s happened since 2010–11.