Crusaders Jordan Coleman (2) and Erik Buggs (15) celebrate during the Crusaders' game against Bethune-Cookman at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Ind. Saturday November 24, 2012. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 2, 2013 6:30AM
VALPARAISO — Deep down, in their heart of hearts, they know only two games truly matter this season.
They would never admit such a thing, of course.
But they also know there’s a process to reach those two games, a process they hope will result in playing those two games at home, at the ARC, in the Horizon League Tournament.
Valparaiso remains on course to land in that position. But the Crusaders’ focus remains on their next opponent, in this case,
Youngstown State, which marks the end of the first half of their conference schedule. At this stage in their development, in the evolution of this team, they simply don’t allow themselves to get too far over their skis.
“You’re only as good as your last game,” Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew said. “Basketball’s such a game of momentum and tempo, and things change so quick. The games are so close in this league, and you can go from a team that’s cold and not doing well, to a team that’s on a hot streak. You never know when those points are going to come. Even with us, our record could almost be flipped right now if a couple balls go certain ways during a lot of those games. So we just concentrate on the daily grind of getting a little better every day and getting prepared for the next game, especially with the parity in the league.
“A lot of our guys have been in the conference long enough, they’re familiar with the teams and the players, and they’ve learned that anyone is capable of beating anyone. If they ever try to think about anything other than the present game, they’re probably going to lose.”
And losing is something the Crusaders haven’t been doing lately.
They have a season-high six-game win streak, their first such streak since late in the 2007-08 season and first in conference play since January of 2004, when they were members of the Mid-Continent Conference. They haven’t won seven games in a row since they won eight early in the 2007-08 season, and not in conference play since they won nine in 2002.
At 16-5 overall, Valparaiso has matched its best 21-game record as a Division I program. Both the 1996-97 and 1998-99 teams made the NCAA Tournament.
“Things aren’t perfect, and we’re not getting complacent about how we’re playing,” senior forward Ryan Broekhoff said. “We’ve been able to win some close games, which is very important in the Horizon League. We’re in a good position, and we have to continue winning.
There’s still a lot of basketball left to be played, and there are no guarantees.”
The Crusaders know the standings. They’re fully aware they’re the only team with one conference loss (6-1) — make no mistake, that home loss to Loyola to open Horizon League play still burns them — with four teams opening the week with three losses (Detroit, Green Bay and Wright State all 5-3, Youngstown 4-3).
“We keep an eye on games that affect that top half of the standings,” Broekhoff said. “We like to know who’s on our heels right now, and what teams are playing well, who has a few wins or a few losses. But we’re more concerned with our own games.”
And especially for those six seniors, including all five starters, the games are beginning to dwindle to a precious few. There’s a certain maturity level with this group.
“With as many upperclassmen as we have, there’s a lot of leadership and a lot of experience,” fifth-year point guard Erik Buggs said.
“Previous teams, we may not have known what to expect as much. But with this team, there’s a really high standard of expectations, and we don’t get away from what we want to accomplish, and that means you have to be ready every day.
“We’re happy being in first place. But we’ve had a couple really, really close calls, games that could go either way, and our league has been known for strange things to happen. You have to finish out to stay in first place. It’s just the first half of the (conference) year completed, and the second half, anything can happen if you lose focus.”
With this team, don’t count on it.