Top Horizon League seed in Valparaiso’s grasp — again
By Mark Lazerus 648-3140 or firstname.lastname@example.org February 13, 2012 11:14PM
Valparaiso University's Matt Kenney runs into defense from University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Thursday evening, December 29, 2011 at Valpo. | Michael Gard~For Sun-Times Media
UIC (7-16, 3-11) at Valparaiso (18-9, 11-4)
7 p.m. today
Radio: 1230-AM, 1500-AM, 95.9-FM
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Updated: March 15, 2012 8:13AM
VALPARAISO — Matt Kenney’s been here before — on top of the Horizon League with a few games to go, his team in control of its own destiny, a chance to host the league tournament (and be a mere two home wins away from the NCAA Tournament) within reach.
Didn’t go well last year.
“A lot of guys were here last year, so we know that feeling and we don’t want that feeling again,” Kenney said of last season’s late-season collapse, in which Valparaiso lost three straight league games to fall from first place to fourth.
“I think we learned to take it game by game and not take anything for granted. Just because we’re in first place right now doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed first place. We have to act like we’re in fifth place trying to get to first place, we have to play with that fight as if we have everything to lose — because we do.”
Indeed, the Horizon League grants its league champion an enormous advantage unlike most other conferences — a double-bye into the league tournament semifinals home-court advantage.
It’s a huge carrot dangling at the end of a very long stick, and the Crusaders are tantalizingly close to grabbing it.
Valparaiso is 10-2 at home this year, with just one league loss at the ARC — a 57-55 heartbreaker to Milwaukee on Dec. 29.
“It’d be huge,” Kenney said. “With our success at home, it’d be a tremendous advantage for us. It’d just be nice to be home, to be in our own rooms, to be in our own gym. And I think our fans deserve it. It’d be an awesome feeling to get the two-round bye and home court.”
Saturday’s eyebrow-raising 71-53 loss at Youngstown State — less than 48 hours after a season-affirming 59-41 trouncing of Cleveland State in a battle for first place — prevented VU from putting a stranglehold on that top seed. CSU, having lost to Butler at home on Saturday, remains just a half-game behind the Crusaders, so just one slip-up could send the tournament to Ohio.
VU has a favorable schedule, with three home games left in league play — tonight against UIC, next Tuesday against Loyola and next Friday against Butler. CSU, meanwhile, visits Milwaukee tonight and Green Bay next Tuesday, then hosts surging Detroit and Wright State the following week.
If the Crusaders win out, the tournament will be at the ARC. But they were in that same situation last year, and a lopsided loss to lowly Loyola put the final nail in their hopes for at least a double bye.
“It’s the same thing as last year,” Kenney said. “We’re at the top of the league and Loyola’s down at the bottom. So I’m sure people are thinking these are going to be two easy games, but they’re not. Loyola has nothing to lose, and they’re going to play with no regret. We can’t take them or anyone else lightly.”
Of course, VU’s success might hinge on the balky knee of Kevin Van\ Wijk. VU’s center suffered a bruised knee at Cleveland State — it initially looked much worse, but an MRI showed no damage to the ACL, MCL or PCL — and did not play at Youngstown State. He was walking without a limp on Monday and participated a bit in a light practice, but he’s still very much questionable.
VU coach Bryce Drew said the team’s medical staff and Van Wijk will make the final call on whether he plays tonight. If he feels up to it, he’ll play. Drew doesn’t intend to save him for Butler or for the tournament — the next two games are too important.
“Kevin knows his body well, and with his history of back injuries, he’s used to going through all this,” Drew said. “He knows discomfort and pain and what he can and can’t play through. He’s a tough kid. If it’s just a pain thing, he can probably go.”
If he can’t go, the role of starting center will again fall to junior Richie Edwards, who has scored at least 16 points in four straight games.
“It’s tough with Kevin going down,” Edwards said. “He’s a big player on our team. I’m just trying to come in and take up the slack and help out the team. Hopefully Kev will be all right these next couple of games.”
With or without Van Wijk, the Crusaders insist they’re not rattled by the uncertainty surrounding him, nor the poor performance at Youngstown, nor the quick turnaround with the rare Tuesday game, nor the distraction of the Friday BracketBuster game in Southern
California against Loyola Marymount, nor the team’s shaky recent history in this situation.
As always, the mantra remains the same — the next game is the most important one.
“You have the real big high on Thursday and the real big low on Saturday, but the key is not to let your highs be too high or your lows too low,” Drew said. “We’ll get the guys ready.”