Lazerus: Plenty of room for optimism at Valpo
March 7, 2012 11:14PM
Valparaiso's Ryan Broekhoff looks up to the scoreboard after the game ends against Detroit Tuesday evening at Valparaiso University. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 10, 2012 11:28AM
VALPARAISO — Stop for a moment. Deep breath. Think for a second.
Try to remove from your mind the images of Detroit’s Ray McCallum Jr. thumping his chest, slapping the floor and dunking in the last second of Tuesday night’s Horizon League championship victory over Valparaiso at the ARC.
Try to put away the vision of 3-pointer after 3-pointer clanking aside for Valparaiso. Forget that sight of Kevin Van Wijk crumpling to the floor not once, but twice. Get past the chants and F-bombs that rained down from the ValparaiZone — on this night filled with rowdy and raucous Detroit students who all but took over the ARC.
Now take a step back and think about what you’re lamenting: a loss in the tournament championship game, a signature moment on Valparaiso’s home court, an NCAA Tournament berth.
Not a first-round tournament exit. Not another middling fourth-place finish. Not a sparsely attended CIT game against Iona. But a lost championship game, at home, on ESPN, to a supremely talented, red-hot team.
Sure, it hurts. Stinks, even, to come so close and have the stars align so perfectly, only to come up short.
But can you really complain about the 2011-12 Valparaiso season? A regular-season league championship for a team without a scholarship senior. A three-game season sweep of two-time national finalist and in-state rival Butler. A statement made to the league that VU is no longer the new kid on the block, but a contender to be dealt with.
Moral victories are for losers. I get that. But come on, now. Did you think you’d be here back in the spring, when presumptive Horizon League player of the year Brandon Wood transferred to Michigan State? Did you think you’d be here back in October, when VU barely beat Hillsdale in the exhibition opener? Did you think you’d be here back in December, when the Crusaders were shot down at IPFW? Did you think you’d be here back in January, when VU absolutely folded in the second half against Wright State? Did you think you’d be here back in February when Van Wijk wrenched his knee and the Crusaders promptly were waxed at Youngstown State?
Put it this way: If back in October, I had told you that Valparaiso would be playing in the NIT at the end of the season — considering all the Crusaders had lost, considering all Butler had done in the past several years, considering all the veteran talent Detroit had — would you have turned it down?
Of course not.
This is not to say that fans shouldn’t be disappointed with Tuesday night’s game. If Van Wijk doesn’t take a LaMarcus Lowe knee to the back of his right leg, maybe VU is dancing. If Ryan Broekhoff weren’t a little under the weather, maybe VU is dancing. The final margin of victory — amplified greatly by free throws and an immature (and uncharacteristic for McCallum) last-second dunk — doesn’t at all reflect just how close, just how taut, just how tense this game really was. VU could have won. Probably should have won.
And it’s going to eat at these guys for months, maybe years, that they let such a golden chance slip away.
But here’s the thing — they’ll all get another shot at it next year. Every meaningful minute played will be returning next season, only now with experience, and now with fuel.
“The great thing is all of us are back next year,” first-year coach Bryce Drew said. “And I know this will be great motivation for them in the offseason.”
And that’s just it. It’s always been about next year for Valparaiso. This year was supposed to be about putting pieces together, about adapting to new roles, about building team chemistry. Next year — especially with the additions of big men Bobby Capobianco and Vashil Fernandez — was when the payoff was supposed to come.
That it came together so quickly, and that VU gets to hang its first Horizon League championship banner in the ARC? That’s all gravy. And it makes next season that much more tantalizing. Detroit loses Eli Holman, Chase Simon and Lowe. Cleveland State loses four starters. Butler, which couldn’t hit a jumpshot all season, is putting all its hope on Arkansas transfer and sharpshooter Rotnei Clarke and an incoming freshman, Pendleton Heights stud Kellen Dunham.
Valparaiso, meanwhile, brings back the 2011-12 regular-season championship squad intact. Without question, it’s the Crusaders’ championship to lose.
Yes, the easy response to that is, “Well, it was on Tuesday night, too.” And that’s true. And that’s why it’ll sting for a while. And that’s why it’s going to be tough to re-focus from a player standpoint and a fan standpoint for the NIT. And that’s why it’s going to be so hard to shake those images of a fired-up McCallum, a falling Van Wijk and a dejected VU team trudging off the floor.
But most teams only get one shot at something like this.
The Crusaders have another one coming. Now it’s up to them to turn 2012’s disappointment into 2013’s glory.