Valparaiso hopes home-court advantage will make the difference
By Mark Lazerus 648-3140 or firstname.lastname@example.org February 27, 2012 11:26PM
Butler head coach Brad Stevens answers a question during an interview session for the men's NCAA Final Four college basketball championship Saturday, April 4, 2009, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Horizon League tournament
First round, today (10) Loyola at (3) Detroit, 6 p.m. (7) Green Bay at (6) Youngstown State, 6 p.m. (9) UIC at (4) Milwaukee, 7 p.m. (8) Wright State at (5) Butler, 7 p.m. Second round, Friday (at Valparaiso) LU/UDM vs. GB/YSU, 5 p.m., ESPN3 UIC/UWM vs. WSU/BU, 7:30 p.m., ESPN3 Semifinals, Saturday (at Valparaiso) First quarterfinal winner vs. (2) Cleveland State, 5 p.m., ESPN3 Second quarterfinal winner vs. (1) Valparaiso, 7:30 p.m., ESPNU Championship, Tuesday
(10) Loyola at (3) Detroit, 6 p.m.
(7) Green Bay at (6) Youngstown State, 6 p.m.
(9) UIC at (4) Milwaukee, 7 p.m.
(8) Wright State at (5) Butler, 7 p.m.
Second round, Friday (at Valparaiso)
LU/UDM vs. GB/YSU, 5 p.m., ESPN3
UIC/UWM vs. WSU/BU, 7:30 p.m., ESPN3
Semifinals, Saturday (at Valparaiso)
First quarterfinal winner vs. (2) Cleveland State, 5 p.m., ESPN3
Second quarterfinal winner vs. (1) Valparaiso, 7:30 p.m., ESPNU
Updated: March 29, 2012 8:15AM
I asked Ryan Broekhoff if there’s a particular team he’d prefer to face in Saturday’s Horizon League tournament semifinal at the ARC, whether he felt Valparaiso matched up especially well with any of the four possible opponents — Milwaukee, Butler, Wright State or UIC.
Broekhoff actually paused to think about it, rather than spouting out the safe soundbite.
“No, not at this point,” he finally said. “With our conference, it’s so evenly matched throughout. One through 10, even Loyola — yeah, they haven’t won many games, but they pushed us right to the edge just a week ago. Really any team that comes in is going to be ready and prepared really well. So I have no real preference, I guess.”
He’s not just blowing smoke. Valparaiso earned every bit of its first Horizon League championship — the Crusaders were the only team to beat every other team in the league, and swept second-seeded Cleveland State, third-seeded Detroit and fifth-seeded Butler.
But make no mistake, this is the most wide-open tournament since VU joined the league. There are seven teams that could conceivably win this tournament, and the three others could easily spring an upset. Whether that’s because the top of the league simply isn’t as good as in years past, or because the depth of the league simply is better than in years past is open to debate.
What’s clear is that this is Valparaiso’s best chance at an NCAA Tournament bid since the last time it reached the Big Dance in 2004. The Crusaders have to win just two home games to get there. Can they do it? We’ll have to wait and see. I’ll get to my predictions at the end of this column.
First, here are my annual championship odds, in order of seeding.
1. Valparaiso: Yes, the Crusaders lost by 18 to Wright State, by 15 to Green Bay and by 18 to Youngstown State. But those were all on the road. At home in league play, VU has been virtually unbeatable. It took an almost freakishly cold 1-of-17 night from 3-point range for the Crusaders to lose their only home league game, a 57-55 decision to Milwaukee. And they still almost won that one — it took a Kaylon Williams 3-pointer to rattle off the rim and backboard for VU to lose that one.
The best thing you can say about VU is it has stepped up in the games that matter most this year — at Milwaukee, at Cleveland State, even at home vs. Loyola, when the Crusaders weren’t at their best. Home-court advantage means a whole lot in this case, even if the students might not be around for any of it.
2. Cleveland State: Left for dead after a five-game losing streak cost them the top seed, the Vikings righted the ship just in time, with wins over Detroit and Wright State to close out the season. The double-bye is huge for these guys, considering how it gives defensive stopper D’Aundray Brown (groin) more time to heal. He hasn’t played since a brief stint in the VU game on Feb. 8. At full strength, CSU might still be the best team in this league.
3. Detroit: You hear this every year, that Detroit is the scariest team in the league because of its unrivaled athleticism. This might be the year it actually proves true — the Titans enter the tourney having won six of seven. Ray McCallum Jr. and Chase Simon can fill up the stat sheet, Eli Holman and LaMarcus Lowe are great shot-blockers machines, and dunk-machine Doug Anderson always is a poster waiting to happen. That said, we’ll believe they can win a big game when they finally do. Let alone four in a row.
4. Milwaukee: Like CSU, Milwaukee faded from the league consciousness by losing four out of five, but closed out strong with four straight wins. The Panthers have a terrific, tenacious defense that should keep them in any game, and Williams is money with the game on the line. But the reason Milwaukee won’t win this tournament? It’s the worst free-throw shooting team in the league. By far. Sixty-one percent as a team? Brutal.
5. Butler: The quote of the year came from Butler coach Brad Stevens after the Bulldogs’ season-ending loss to VU. Butler has had the double-bye for six straight years, so how daunting is it to have to win four games to return to the NCAA Tournament? “It’s hard to go to the Final Four, too,” he said. So, yeah, Butler is one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the nation, one of the worst field-goal shooting teams in the league, the second-worst free-throw shooting team in the league, and couldn’t hit the broad side of a Hoosier barn for most of the season. But do you want to bet against Stevens, Ronald Nored and the Bulldogs defense? Didn’t think so.
6. Youngstown State: The Penguins are 10th in the nation in 3-pointers made per game, and for that reason alone, they are incredibly scary. If Kendrick Perry, Blake Allen, Ashen Ward and DuShawn Brooks get going, look out. Throw in the defensive force that is Damian Eargle down low, and these guys are a tough out.
Unfortunately for them, those five are pretty much the entire team. With virtually no depth at all, it’s just asking too much for these guys to win four must-win games in eight days.
7. Green Bay: The Phoenix have won five straight and eight of 10. With freshman Keifer Sykes, sophomore center Alec Brown, and lethal sophomore Kam Cerroni (VU knows about his 3-point prowess all too well), the future is incredibly bright up north. These guys can beat anybody in the league, without question. But again, four must-wins in a week against good-to-very-good teams for one of the youngest teams in the nation? Not yet.
8. Wright State: The Raiders lost six of seven league games to close the season. Plus, they drew an angry, hated rival in Butler in the first round. It’s not a bad team, but it’s a bad draw. Next.
9. UIC: Ten of the Flames’ 15 league losses were by nine points or fewer. That stat tells you two things: The Flames are a competitive bunch, and the Flames lost 15 league games this season.
10. Loyola: Ask Valparaiso what it thinks about the Ramblers. As far as 1-17 teams go, they’re about as good as they come, and Porter Moser has them playing particularly tough down the stretch, with four close league losses in a row, including game efforts on the road at Butler and at the ARC. Detroit should be wary, but the Ramblers are no long-term threat.
So how will it play out? Detroit and Milwaukee escape Loyola and UIC by single digits tonight, while Butler has no trouble with Wright State and Green Bay springs the road “upset” of Youngstown.
In Friday’s second round, Green Bay avenges two close regular-season losses by upsetting Detroit, and Butler edges Milwaukee in another low-scoring slugfest.
On Saturday, the double-bye yet again makes all the difference. A tired Green Bay falls to Cleveland State, and a tired Butler falls to Valparaiso (if the Bulldogs can’t shoot when they’re well rested, how are they going to shoot with no legs?).
In next Tuesday’s championship game, Valparaiso finishes the three-game sweep of Cleveland State. A healthy D’Aundray Brown keeps Broekhoff in check this time, but Broekhoff makes a few circus slashes to the basket, gets himself to the free-throw line and still manages his usual 14 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Meanwhile Kevin Van Wijk abuses Aaron Pogue down low yet again, and Bryce Drew and the Crusaders are back in the NCAA Tournament.
Just don’t hold me to that. Not this year, at least.