LED BY A COACH WHO KNOWS A THING OR TWO ABOUT MARCH MIRACLES, TINY VALPARAISO IS BUILT TO BECOME THIS YEAR'S MID-MAJOR PARTY CRASHER
This is an article from the March 7, 2016 issue
WHEN VASHIL FERNANDEZ first arrived at Valparaiso in 2011, "gangly mess" was perhaps the best description of the way he played. So much so that in '12--13, his first active season at the small Lutheran college in northwest Indiana, Crusaders fans cheered politely when the 6'10" native of Jamaica dribbled properly or successfully caught an entry feed. Fernandez's lack of skill was hardly surprising. He'd only started playing organized basketball at 17.
The second oldest of six children, Fernandez had grown up in a three-bedroom house in rural Jamaica packed with 19 family members. He would visit his mother, Sophia Green, who worked in Kingston, on the weekends. None of his relatives had attended college or moved to the U.S., both of which he wanted to do. Since he was already about 6'8" at that point, he thought hoops could be his ticket out. So he transferred to Calabar High in Kingston and began playing the sport that would change his future.
While sprawled on a leather couch in Valpo's basketball offices last month, the fifth-year senior took stock of his unexpected collegiate career. The initial adjustments—to prep school in Maryland, life in a cold climate, a Division I playbook—were humbling. But Fernandez is now a captain, the Horizon League's reigning defensive player of the year and Valpo's all-time leader in blocks (264 through week's end). Nine times this season he's rejected five or more shots. He'll leave the school this spring with two master's degrees; a wife, Bridget, whom he married last May; and a 16-month-old daughter named Maia who loves reggae and gospel dance parties. Around town they call Fernandez the Mayor. Teammates look to him for both leadership and weakside help. The transformation is striking. "I came here with an open heart and open mind," Fernandez says.
Horizon rivals won't be sad to see the Mayor vacate his seat. The depth and size of the Crusaders' nine-man rotation—anchored by their center and his 7'7" wingspan—is rare among schools outside the power conferences. "They look like a Big Ten team," says Belmont coach Rick Byrd, who has faced Valpo twice this season. "They look like they belong." Guards Tevonn Walker, a 6'2", 200-pound sophomore, and Keith Carter, a 6'1", 180-pound senior, are thick and quick. The wings, especially 6'7" junior Shane Hammink, are rangy and aggressive. Opponents are shooting just 40.9% on two-pointers (which ranks fourth nationally) against the Crusaders, and they grab 24.0% of their offensive rebounds (sixth). The Valpo system is not manic like West Virginia's press or constantly shifting like Louisville's D, and it's not crammed as densely as Virginia's pack-line. It is basic but ruthlessly efficient, executed with energy and consistency. "They are going to block [you] and intimidate [you] and change [your close shots], and then you're not going to get second shots," says Oakland coach Greg Kampe.
Five years after taking the helm as head coach, and 18 years after "the Shot," which is memorialized on a painting that hangs in the stadium, Bryce Drew is quietly reestablishing his alma mater as a mid-tier power. The cherubic 41-year-old has won 71.9% of his games and four regular-season conference trophies in his short tenure. His current crew (26--5, through week's end) ranks fourth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, and has spent stretches in 2016 at the top of Ken Pomeroy's statistical leader board.
It's a wide-open season in Division I hoops, one in which the Crusaders could, with a few fortunate bounces, make their way to the Final Four in Houston. The team's profile is similar to the 2010 Butler team that reached the national title game. Kampe has prepared for two squads with Final Four--caliber résumés this winter (Michigan State and Virginia), and his praise for the Crusaders was unequivocal: "They are every bit as good as both of those teams."
NINETY MINUTES before each tip-off 6'9" junior forward Alec Peters hikes up the waistband of his shorts and launches into an unusual warmup routine. He begins with a series of precision dribbling exercises, baseline to timeline and back. He continues with layups off each foot, five-footers with each hand, 15-footers from each elbow and high-arcing three-pointers from all over the floor. The 25 minutes of rote training is so scripted, it's as if an invisible drill sergeant is sitting courtside, barking at Peters to keep his handle low and his elbow in.
The regimen has its roots in the sleepy town of Washington, Ill. (pop. 15,000), where Peters's dad, Jeff, directed youth leagues. That job required the elder Peters to host coaching clinics for the volunteers who ran Washington's 25 teams. Alec, still in grade school, served as his demonstration dummy. The pair pored over instructional videos, surveyed high school coaches and players for inspiration and filled thick notebooks with drills. On winter weekends they'd hit the gym to show basketball beginners how the sport should be played. For young Alec it didn't feel like father-son bonding so much as yet another chore. "He'd take me to the gym, and it was like, 'Oh, here we go again—do the same thing we did yesterday,'" And yet, all that repetition helped shape Peters into a three-star recruit (according to rivals.com) who received 24 scholarship offers, including ones from Boston College, Missouri and Tennessee.
Peters is the type of talent Drew is attracting with increasing frequency, "guys that have other options and decide to come here," the coach says. Not that Valpo didn't have to work to get Peters to commit. Kevin Brown, Peters's coach at Washington High, recalls how often Valpo assistant Roger Powell Jr. would pop in unexpectedly, driving three hours in the dark for a friendly pre-school chat. Peters (17.5 points, 8.3 rebounds this season) made an immediate impact; he has started all 99 games since coming to Valpo.
Even though Drew is best known for hitting one of the most exciting shots in the history of the tournament—a leaning, 23-foot buzzer beater in the first round that knocked out No. 4 seed Ole Miss—a workmanlike star such as Peters suits his coaching style perfectly: calm on the surface, impatient with mental mistakes and constitutionally opposed to any kind of selfishness. Peters, who hits 45.8% from three, has a rapid release and his versatility has helped him reach the top 10 nationally in offensive rating among players who use at least 20% of their team's possessions. According to Synergy Sports, only one D-I player with at least 90 spot-up opportunities (VCU's Melvin Johnson) is more efficient and only two are more efficient with at least 65 post-up opportunities. It helps that Drew uses creative schemes—post-and-pops, screening action—to free him up or isolate him on smaller defenders. Having logged 1,546 career points for the Crusaders, Peters is on track to break his coach's school record of 2,142.
Like his star player, Drew knows what it's like to live with a hoops junkie. A member of his family has manned the sideline here for 28 straight years. His father, Homer, is Valparaiso's all-time wins leader with 371, and his brother Scott took the helm for one season before becoming Baylor's coach in 2003. Drew is adept at teaching what made him a viable NBA player for six seasons: angles and footwork, shooting form, the ability to slow the game down and see the floor. And he's also upheld the wholesome culture his family has diligently cultivated. Just as Valpo's compact campus is anchored by the Chapel of the Resurrection, an ornate mid-century church, the Drews have, in the words of one booster, "put God in the center of the program." There's a "no cussing" rule for players and staffers. Workouts, bus rides and team meetings all present opportunities to share motivating spiritual wisdom; during a recent pregame meal Powell sermonized about lost opportunities with the cadence and gravitas of a Sunday preacher. Fernandez, like others who've recently signed, finds this environment appealing. "I wanted to go somewhere," he says, "where I was still able to grow spiritually."
On the court Valpo's goals are clear: secure the Horizon League bid for the third time since 2013, win an NCAA tournament game for the first time in seven tries and join Wichita State and Gonzaga at the mid-major head table. Given the slim margin for error all one-bid conferences face, and the resource challenges Valpo is constantly managing, nobody is under the impression that it's preordained. Their 5,100-seat gym, with its $1 popcorn and sweater-vested fan base, is shared with several other Valpo sports; just before the doors opened for a late-January home game, members of the track team could be found hurling shot puts where the second deck of bleachers usually pulls out. Even the T-shirt cannon jams frequently. And yet this is a rugged and experienced roster that's ready to bust brackets in the Big Dance. Call it a leap of faith from a program that takes that concept seriously.
IN VALPO'S narrow locker room words like peace and friendship are painted above skinny wooden cubbies. Drew is more comfortable "looking big picture" than when he started, and his remarks before a 97--68 demolition of Horizon rival Youngstown State reflect that maturation. "We want to get better than what we were last game," he tells his players. "We're going to keep building this thing, to get to the point that we want to get." That means a winning tradition, of course, and respect for the program among the power-conference teams.
The Crusaders lock arms in prayer before Peters leads them into the arena. When the last student has jogged out, Powell shuts the door behind them. Drew paces around the silent room, picking up discarded wrappers and stray tape. Then he tosses his notepad on the carpet and kneels. His staff joins him, slinging their arms around each other tightly. In their matching black suits, they resemble clergymen. Assistant Matt Lottich delivers the final words in a whisper, a simple demand he hopes extends through the next four quarters and then another month after:
"Bless us and bless Coach Drew's leadership, and put our guys in a position to maximize their abilities, Father God. And let us come out victorious. In Jesus's name we pray, Amen."