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Lazerus: Crusaders enjoy the view from the top

Valparaiso's Erik Buggs tangles with Loyola's Joe Crisman first half Tuesday evening Valparaiso University. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

Valparaiso's Erik Buggs tangles with Loyola's Joe Crisman in the first half Tuesday evening at Valparaiso University. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 9, 2012 10:17AM



VALPARAISO — Suddenly, that Horizon League tournament format isn’t looking so terrible to Valparaiso.

A year ago, the Crusaders finished one game out of a three-way tie for first place, yet they had to win four games to win a championship, while Milwaukee and Butler only needed two. It was even more unfair for the third co-champ, Cleveland State, which missed out on the two double-byes because of tiebreakers.

“Obviously, you’d rather play two games than four games, so I think if you’re first or second, you probably like the formula,” VU coach Bryce Drew said. “And if you’re third or fourth, you probably don’t.”

This year, as the outright Horizon League champion, Valparaiso likes it an awful lot. The Crusaders get the double-bye and the right to host the second round, the semifinals and the finals should they win that semifinal game.

“Looking at it from this angle, we love it,” junior point guard Erik Buggs said with a laugh.

But the system still is clearly flawed. Last year, the three-way tie showed quite obviously just how unfair it can be to give second place such a huge advantage over third place. This year, the league is even deeper and more wide open. There are six, maybe seven teams with a legitimate chance to win this tournament. The talent gap between first and seventh just isn’t that big, let alone the gap between first, second and third.

And while nobody can argue that the Crusaders earned this championship — they’re the only team that beat every other team in the league this year, and whenever a game absolutely had to be won (at Milwaukee, at Cleveland State, even vs. Loyola on Tuesday night), Valparaiso won it — there’s a growing theory around the league that the Crusaders aren’t even the favorites to win the whole thing, especially with the way Butler has come on of late, winning five straight.

The Horizon League built the tournament this way to improve the odds that the team with the best chance of performing well in the NCAA Tournament actually reached the NCAA Tournament. The question people around the league are asking is, is Valparaiso — a team that lost by 18 to eighth-place Wright State, by 15 to seventh-place Green Bay and by 18 to sixth-place Youngstown State, and to three Summit League squads — really that team?

Perhaps a better way to phrase it — are the Crusaders so far ahead of the rest of the league that they’ve earned such an advantage? Has anybody?

Well, the Crusaders might have their doubters around the league, but not in their locker room.

“I think we deserve it,” junior Ryan Broekhoff said. “I think we’ve definitely had our ups and downs during the season, but we’ve shown against the good teams that we can win. We’ve had a big win at Cleveland State, a big win at Milwaukee, and we really kind of solidified ourselves against the top teams. Obviously we’ve had some games where we haven’t played our best, and the scores have shown that. But I do think we’ve earned our spot.”

OK, enough playing devil’s advocate. The fact is, this is the system the Horizon League has come up with, and Valparaiso is the victor, so it gets the spoils. And let’s not lose sight of how impressive — and unexpected — this league championship is.

It’s a remarkable achievement for a team that lost its three best players, including the league’s presumptive player of the year, Brandon Wood. A team with a first-time head coach, no less.

Drew has had a masterful first season in the first chair, taking a team full of returning role players and new faces and molding it into a championship team. The Crusaders play smart, they play unselfish and they play hard.

Drew has given this team an edge, a grittiness and a never-say-die attitude that has helped the Crusaders mount big second-half rallies (like UIC last week), stave off opponents’ big second-half rallies (like Green Bay on New Year’s Eve), pull out wins when they’re clearly not at their best (like Loyola on Tuesday) and bounce back from bad losses (only once all season did they lose two games in a row).

There’s a killer instinct on this squad that’s been missing in recent seasons. Drew deserves a lot of credit for that, and he’ll likely be rewarded with the league’s coach of the year honor.

“At the beginning of the season, the guys in the locker room and the coaching staff set goals,” Buggs said. “Our goal was always to finish atop the Horizon League.”

It seemed far-fetched at first. The Crusaders — with no scholarship seniors — were picked to finish fifth, with the idea that next year would be Valparaiso’s chance to contend. But Drew, Broekhoff and the rest of this team sped up the process, jelled almost immediately and sent early notice that it could be a legitimate contender with a weekend sweep of Akron and Duquesne, then a great half at Ohio State, then a big, gutty win at Butler to open league play.

And while the rest of the league kept waiting for the Crusaders to falter, they never did. That’s why, for the first time ever, they can call themselves Horizon League champions.

(And, yes, for the first time ever, they can say they like the league tournament’s format.)

“It’s really exciting,” Buggs said. “Especially coming from my freshman year (2008-09), when we were 9-22. I’ve been here since we started to grow as a program, working to get back to the glory days, so to speak. This is huge, not just for our program, but for the Valparaiso community.”



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