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Gorches: Turnovers the key to Horizon 3-peat for Valpo

Jeffrey D. Nicholls/Post-Tribune  

Post-Tribune sports writer Steve Gorches

Jeffrey D. Nicholls/Post-Tribune Post-Tribune sports writer Steve Gorches

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Updated: February 3, 2014 4:28PM



Several college basketball coaches call the non-conference part of the season the “preseason,” but it’s not really like that period of time before the regular season in pro sports.

For Valparaiso’s mens team, it definitely was a needed learning experience with so many new players contributing after losing seven seniors from last year’s Horizon League championship campaign. And there have been some ups and downs in the first 15 non-conference games with the Crusaders going 8-7, which is pretty much expected. The one theme has been turnovers — when they keep those miscues to a minimum, they win. When the young players fail to value possessions, they lose.

In fact, if VU cut the turnovers by just one-third, it’s conceivable that it could have a record of 13-2 or 14-1. That’s how well the Crusaders played in other aspects of the game outside of the turnovers.

They have more size than almost every other team. They can shoot as well or better from the outside than other teams. They rebound as well or better than every team. For the most part, they shoot free throws as well as any other team.

So the $64,000 question is whether Bryce Drew’s squad can fix the turnover issues and show how much better it is once the clock hits zero at the end of games during the Horizon League schedule, which begins Thursday night when UIC comes calling to the Athletics-Recreation Center.

“We have to understand that team comes first in college,” said forward Alec Peters about the VU freshmen and their propensity to turn the ball over. “We need to value every possession and prevent momentum shifts.”

Easier said than done, but it really is that simple for this talented group of Crusaders — don’t give away possessions and you win ball games.

At least that’s how simple this basketball junkie see it. And my Horizon outlook follows suit with that train of thought. It’s not being a homer. I truly believe the Horizon champs can defend the crown. Here’s a breakdown of each team in order of projected finish (non-conference record in parentheses) …

9. UIC (5-9)

The Flames won 18 games last year and gave Illinois a scare last week before losing by double-digits. But this year they are basically Kelsey Barlow and a bunch of other guys. Barlow has five games of 20 points or more this season, including 38 points against Wagner. That’s the most by a UIC player since 2005.

8. Detroit (7-8)

Seven of the Titans’ games this year have been decided by five points or less — they are 3-4 in those games. But that’s the non-conference schedule and it will be tougher in the Horizon after they lost a big chunk of their talent from last year, including Ray McCallum Jr. Detroit has challenged for the title in recent years, but not this year. But it could be entertaining to watch Juwan Howard Jr., son of the longtime NBA forward and former University of Michigan star.

7. Wright State (8-7)

The Raiders are always tough at home — they are 7-0 at the Nutter Center (my favorite name of a Horizon League venue), but have lost four straight on the road. One aspect Wright’s opponents much watch for — especially Valparaiso — is that it forces turnovers. In each of coach Billy Donlon’s three seasons, the Raiders have been in the top 15 nationally in defensive turnover percentage.

6. Cleveland State (8-6)

If there’s one thing the Vikings can do, it’s score the rock. They are averaging 76.6 points per game so far this season. They can also shoot free throws with two of the top five in the Horizon League in freebies this season (Charlie Lee at 88.6 and Bryn Forbes at 88.1).

5. Oakland (5-10)

It hasn’t been a great start to Oakland’s Horizon League membership, but it did have the toughest non-conference schedule of any Horizon team. The Grizzlies do have a player who could make NCAA history in a few weeks. Travis Bader, who is leading Horizon players at 21.2 points per game, is sixth on the all-time 3-pointers made list with 429. He’s 29 away from breaking the all-time mark held by Duke graduate and current NBA sharp shooter J.J. Redick.

4. Youngstown State (9-6)

Just behind Bader in scoring this season is Youngstown’s Kendrick Perry (21.1 ppg.), who is also fourth in assists per game with 4.6. Perry needs 201 points the rest of the season (definitely possible based on his current average) to break the Penguins’ all-time career record. He’s a handful for defenses to contain and Youngstown is another tough opponent on the road.

3. Milwaukee (10-4)

The Panthers have set a school record with 10 non-conference wins this season. That’s more wins than all of last season (8-24), and there are several reasons for the turnaround. Milwaukee has improved points per game (62.7 to 73.1), field goal percentage (38.8 to 45.5), free-throw percentage (68.4 to 74.8), assists per game (10.9 to 14.4) and turnovers per game (14.2 to 13.0). The Panthers have also won seven road games so far.

2. Green Bay (9-3)

The Phoenix are the preseason favorite to win the Horizon, so you can expect them to be in the running until the end. Green Bay may be the only team in the conference able to match Valparaiso’s size with five players listed at 6-foot-7 or taller, including 7-1 center Alec Brown, who had a triple-double earlier this season against Minnesota-Duluth (15 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocks).

1. Valparaiso (8-7)

Again, this probably comes across as being a homer to some of you, but I truly believe this young group of Crusaders has the potential to be as good as the last two years of Horizon League regular-season champions. That’s because what I see on the court is a team that is better than other teams for the duration of 40 minutes, as long as turnovers are kept to a minimum. Take Milwaukee’s average this season of 13 per game. If Valparaiso’s turnovers were at that number, it might only have a couple losses. In fact, turnovers might be the only part of his team’s game that Drew doesn’t like.

“I like our energy and I like our size,” he said. “We’ve rebounded the ball extremely well and our players have really improved from the beginning of the season to now.”

He also loves his senior leader at guard, LaVonte Dority, who leads the team in scoring at 15.5 points per game.

“He’s played like a senior with urgency,” Drew added. “He’s worked really hard on his shooting.”

Like I said, there’s very few flaws with the Crusaders outside of the turnovers and it’s just a matter of discipline to improve those. With Drew on the job, you can bet VU’s 15.6 turnovers per game will be lower by the end of the season, which could result in another Horizon League regular season title.



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