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Hutton: Valpo happy to show up, play hard and lose ... again

Valparaiso head coach talks with Crusaders during time out early second half NCAA Tournament The Palace Auburn Hills Thursday afternoon.

Valparaiso head coach talks with the Crusaders during a time out early in the second half at the NCAA Tournament at The Palace in Auburn Hills Thursday afternoon. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 23, 2013 2:36PM



AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — It’s all a matter of perspective.

There was a time, before Butler was going to the Final Four, that I hoped for a Butler-like level of performance for the Valparaiso program.

Those aspirations exist in a different lifetime now.

It was just good for Valparaiso to finally get back to the tournament, after a nine-year vacation. Now, the Crusaders have to work on getting better if they want to put 1998 behind them. I loved what the Crusaders did in 1998, beating Ole Miss and going to the Sweet 16, but I’m tired of having this program defined by it. The story needs to be freshened up.

The Crusaders need to figure out a way to get to the second round again. That probably involves never playing Michigan State in the first round again.

The floor dive that Erik Buggs took in the second half after he was tripped by a Michigan State defender, when the game was wrapped up for the Spartans, revealed the innards of this Valparaiso team.

Fighting for every single point against a team that was far, far superior to VU at every position. The Crusaders were outmanned in every conceivable way yet they played hard until the final buzzer.

There isn’t one Crusaders starter that I’d take over an MSU starter if I had my choice. Seriously. Ryan Broekhoff? Nice player, but still not as long or athletic as Branden Dawson or Adreian Payne. Derrick Nix finished with 23 points and 15 rebounds for the Spartans despite constantly drawing a double team. No one could stop him. Buggs is excellent, but he doesn’t shoot the 3-pointer often or all that well, which is a detriment when the trees inside are immovable. Hard to pick him over Keith Appling. And well, Garry Harris is just the kind of big shooting guard, with skill and size and touch, that almost always ends up at the very elite programs and in the NBA someday.

Let’s be real here. The Crusaders got the worst possible No. 3 seed they could get when the NCAA paired them against Michigan State and put the Spartans essentially on their home court — something they really didn’t deserve if seeding and pairings are truly merit-based. MSU wasn’t even OK at the end of the season, finishing 3-4 in its last seven games. The Spartans are a No. 1 seed that tumbled late because of a mediocre finish. Tom Izzo gets the close calls on this stuff because of his history. He’s good. Very good. I’m convinced, though, after watching Izzo for more than a decade now, that he cares less about the late regular season swoon and way more about the NCAA Tournament. That’s why he has taken six teams to the Final Four and won a national championship. He understands this time of the year how to pace his team and coach his players, push them and joke with them and be serious with them at the right time. He also has the luxury of doing it with some of the best players in the country. That does make a difference. The other No. 3 seeds — Florida, New Mexico and Marquette — are significantly more palatable matchups for this VU team than MSU.

But the Spartans it was and here is a reasonable lens to view what needs to happen next for the program.

The Crusaders have to keep coming back to the NCAA Tournament again and again so they aren’t the marginal No. 14 seed, so they get the Izzo benefit of the doubt when it comes to seedings and venues and matchups. There are winnable 3-14 games every year, but this wasn’t one of them.

A wise coach (Scott Drew) once told me that the NCAA Tournament is all about individual matchups. That the miracles you witness — VU beating Ole Miss in 1998, Butler making Final Four runs in 2010 and 11, No. 15 seed Lehigh a defeating Duke, a No. 2 seed, really aren’t miracles but winnable games with a reasonable game plan and the right kind of luck.

The problem with MSU is that there was no reasonable game plan. The reasonable game plan resulted in an 11-point loss for VU — one that could have been much worse for the Crusaders if ennui hadn’t of set in for MSU. There was a point, with 10:04 left, when Michigan State led 54-31 and VU had made 9-of-35 shots. This looked like 2000 all over again — when MSU won by 27 over the Crusaders and held them to 25 percent shooting from the field. But they rallied and held it together and made it look respectable.

Don’t be fooled, though. The Spartans were never threatened, perhaps frustrated in the first few minutes when they couldn’t pull away, but that storm was brief. VU lamented some missed 3-pointers early that could’ve changed the game. Really? Maybe one or two, but the Crusaders went nearly eight minutes in the first half without making a field goal. MSU simply has the reserve to clamp down on less talented teams when they want to.

“We are a good defensive team. We played everybody and their uncle this year and so you know, in a couple of those early timeouts, it was about hey, we got to get after it,” Izzo said.

That’s all it took. The Spartans listened and executed. It was 32-12 before VU scored. The game was over by halftime.

Bryce Drew has time to figure this out, if he doesn’t bolt for Northwestern or somewhere else, but it won’t be easy and I couldn’t predict how it will go. But whenever they’re ready to get it done, I’m ready to write about it again, just like 1998.



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