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Valparaiso gets No. 14 seed, matchup with Michigan State

Members Valparaiso University Crusaders men's basketball team react hearing their selectiNCAA tournament pairings party Sunday March 17 2013 Harre Union.

Members of the Valparaiso University Crusaders men's basketball team react to hearing their selection in the NCAA tournament at a pairings party on Sunday, March 17, 2013, at the Harre Union. Valpo will play Michigan State on Thursday. | Michael Gard~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 29, 2013 4:03PM



VALPARAISO — Five days had elapsed since Valparaiso clinched its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2004, by virtue of its Horizon League Tournament championship.

But there’s still something special about seeing that school name appear on television, hearing it uttered, on Selection Sunday — with this draw something of a mixed bag for the Crusaders. If it didn’t feel real already, if there still was a little bit of a pinch-me feeling for them, the eruption at approximately 5:05 p.m. in the Harre Union ballrooms provided that goose, not having to wait long once the show began.

Valparaiso was tabbed as a No. 14 seed in its first NCAA Tournament appearance in nine years, and will play No. 3 Michigan State, ranked No. 8 nationally, at 11:15 a.m. on Thursday in Auburn Hills — a relatively short trip, but a virtual home game for a challenging opponent — and will be televised on CBS.

“It’s very exciting for our players,” Crusaders coach Bryce Drew said. “It’s been a dream of theirs growing up to play in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve been excited ever since Tuesday night waiting for their name to be called. Tonight, hopefully they’ll enjoy it all, and then tomorrow, we’ll get refocused and start working on Michigan State.

“Historically, we’ve been shipped pretty far from home the majority of the time. So it’s nice to be within driving distance so our fans can be able to go to the game. … Michigan State is one of the best programs in the country. Very physical, it’s like a home game for them, so that’s why need as many fans to as we can to get out there.”

Said Ryan Broekhoff: “When I first came here four years ago, that was our goal. It’s been a long time coming, so it’s been a huge relief, and an amazing experience to finally see it come up.”

The Crusaders are a No. 14 for the second time, after they also were that seed in 1996, their first NCAA Tournament appearance, losing 90-51 to Arizona. Most recently, they were a No. 15 in ’04, having ranged from every seed between a No. 12 (’97) to No. 16 (’00) in their tourney history.

It appeared Valparaiso might get a No. 13 seed for the third time, but the Crusaders did their best to attempt to hide any disappointment.

“Any seed is a good seed when you haven’t been (to the NCAA Tournament) in nine years,” Erik Buggs said. “We’re taking whatever we get.”

Said Matt Kenney: “Obviously, we would’ve liked to have been a 13 — we would’ve liked to have been a 1.

“Once the 13 was off the board, I wasn’t really paying attention, then our name popped up. We’re just thankful to be in the Tournament and get a bid. Whoever we play, it’s going to be a tough team no matter what, being a lower seed. We’ll be ready.”

The Crusaders (26-7) defeated Wright State 62-54 in Tuesday night’s league tournament final at the ARC, capping their arduous journey back to the Tournament. They were off on Wednesday and Thursday, before resuming practice on Friday. On Sunday, some 450 people gathered for a watch party — registration reached that capacity in just more than 24 hours — to share in the celebration of their eighth trip.

“It’s a great showing today,” Broekhoff said. “The support we’ve been getting has been amazing. People from the community and the university, they’re all right behind us. We’ll use that as motivation to try to win as many games as we can and try to put Valpo back on the map.”

Valparaiso is 2-7 in its previous seven NCAA Tournaments, with those only two wins coming in its memorable 1998 run to the Sweet 16. The Crusaders will try to notch that first non-’98 win against the Spartans (25-8), who finished tied with Ohio State for second in the Big Ten with a 13-5 record and lost to the Buckeyes in the conference tournament semifinals.

“It’s a tough draw,” Buggs said. “They’re a big team, really physical.

They’ve had a great year, and they have great tradition. We just have to go our there and make sure we rebound and control the things we can control.”

As a No. 16 seed in the 2000 NCAA Tournament, Valparaiso lost 65-38 to No. 1 and eventual national champion Michigan State. On Nov. 22 during the 2009-10 season — when Broekhoff and Kenney were freshmen, and one in which Buggs wound up redshirting — the Crusaders lost 90-60 at the second-ranked Spartans as part of the Legends Classic.

“It was a little rough,” Broekhoff said. “They threw us in the deep end. It’s something we’ll look back on and draw some experience from.

“We have played some really good teams over the years and we’ve learned each time what we’ve done wrong, and we’ve improved every time we’ve played big teams. It should be a lot closer than it was the last time.”

The winner of this game between Valparaiso and Michigan State will play in the Round of 32 against either No. 6 seed Memphis, or No. 11 Saint Mary’s or Middle Tennessee, with the latter two teams playing each other in a First Four game on Tuesday.

But it’s one step at a time for the Crusaders in what has been a highly anticipated process for them.

“We got called early so we didn’t have to wait too long this time,” Drew said. “You’re excited to finally know where you’re going and who you’re playing, so you can start focusing on the next step. … Now we have a purpose, and know what we’re going to be game-planning for.”



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