Lazerus: Crusaders better off without Wood
By Mark Lazerus 648-3140 or email@example.com February 8, 2012 11:12PM
Michigan State's Brandon Wood poses during the NCAA college basketball team's media day, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
Updated: March 11, 2012 8:39AM
With less than three weeks to go before the Horizon League tournament, here are some idle thoughts on Valparaiso basketball as it prepares for a make-or-break weekend.
Had Brandon Wood chosen to stay at Valparaiso rather than transfer to Michigan State, he undoubtedly would have been the Horizon League Preseason Player of the Year, and the likely postseason Player of the Year, too.
But to everyone’s surprise, Valparaiso is better without him.
That’s no slight on Wood — a good guy, a well-liked teammate and a great player. But the fact is, Wood would have completely dominated this team this year. Without Cory Johnson and Howard Little, Wood would have been tasked with carrying the entire offense. He’d be for VU this year what Norris Cole was for Cleveland State last year — the entire offense would have revolved around him.
Without him, Valparaiso has become a more balanced team — just as Cleveland State has without Cole. Players such as Ryan Broekhoff, Kevin Van Wijk, Jay Harris, Will Bogan, Ben Boggs and Matt Kenney — all of whom would have been secondary or tertiary options at best if Wood were still here — have all taken turns carrying the offense.
It’s made the Crusaders infinitely more difficult to defend.
“We’d love to still have Brandon, obviously, he’s a fantastic player and doing great things at Michigan State,” Broekhoff said. “But I guess it has allowed us to look at different options down the stretch in key situations. It gives opposing coaches a bit of a headache on who to guard, who to help, who they think is going to take the last shot or an important shot. It’s kind of a mind game between coaches, and I think Bryce (Drew) does a really good job identifying what the other team expects and then surprising them. We have the weapons to do that.”
With Wood on the court, maybe they wouldn’t. Or, perhaps more accurately, they wouldn’t have known if they did.
Think of it this way — with Wood, the Crusaders had a legitimate Player of the Year candidate. Without him, they have two — Broekhoff and Van Wijk.
This year was supposed to be about building toward next season, as every scholarship player on the roster will be back. Wood’s departure simply expedited the process, and has given VU even more time to develop chemistry with this current, selfless group.
The fact that they’re surprising contenders this year is a bonus.
Next year, they should be the league favorites for the first time. And they can give Tom Izzo a small piece of the credit for that.
Bracket busted: Broekhoff is a fan of the BracketBuster game — a made-for-ESPN event that pits mid-majors against each other late in the season. Last year, VU beat Missouri State on national TV with Dick Vitale at the ARC. This year, the Crusaders get a trip to California to play Loyola Marymount on national TV.
“I’m a big fan of the BracketBuster,” Broekhoff said. “You can test your skills against a non-conference opponent and see where you really stand. We kind of see it as mental refreshment — it kind of takes your mind off the conference for a bit.”
But that’s exactly why so many coaches don’t like it.
“Once you get into conference season, you’re kind of in conference mode,” Drew said, echoing something his father, Homer, said every year. “And your conference is the most important part of the season. I do like the BracketBuster because if gives you an opportunity to get on national TV if you’re doing well, but for us to head all the way out to California and turn around and come back and play on a Tuesday (against Loyola), it makes a coach wonder which game is really more important.”
ESPN touts the BracketBuster as a way for bubble teams to pick up a resume-building win against another bubble team. But the fact is, very few participating teams have a shot at getting an at-large bid — no Horizon League teams do this year. So other than a small chance to get on TV (only 26 of 142 participating teams do), there’s little benefit to the BracketBuster.
And it can really hurt. Last year, VU’s critical trip to Wisconsin was split in half by the home game against Missouri State — VU played at Milwaukee on Wednesday, home against Missouri State on Saturday, then back at Green Bay on Monday. All told, it was five games in 11 days, with a lot of extra travel, and VU lost three of the four league games to plummet from the top spot in the league.
This year won’t be so bad, as VU has a home game against UIC on a Tuesday, the game at Loyola Marymount on Friday, then a home game against Loyola the following Tuesday.
But VU’s main competition for the top spot, Cleveland State, is in the same situation VU was in last year — five games in 12 days, with the BracketBuster home game against Drexel splitting up the long trips to Milwaukee and Green Bay. It’s a lousy way to chase a league championship.
The best solution might be to move the BracketBuster up to just before league play begins. You might not get the perfect RPI matchups ESPN craves, but who cares? League play is what gets mid-majors into the NCAA Tournament, not made-for-TV events.
Killer instinct: Perhaps the biggest thing Drew has brought to his team in his first year as coach is a certain grittiness, a level of toughness that has allowed them to mount impressive second-half rallies and to stave off comeback bids against them. This team has bounced back well from bad losses at Wright State and Green Bay, and has shown more of a killer instinct than in years past.
It’s a point of emphasis for Drew, and it’s showing on the court.
“It’s just preparation,” Broekhoff said. “We do a lot of late-game situations, and he’s very particular about them. Both teams are going to get runs during the course of the game. It’s about minimizing theirs and maximizing ours. He’s very big on that.”
Of course, now the question is — will that killer instinct translate to the end of the season, or will VU again let the top seed and home-court advantage slip through its grasp?
“We’re in almost the identical spot we were in last year,” Drew said. “So in two weeks, I guess we’ll know.”