Lazerus: Will the real VU please stand up?
By Mark Lazerus firstname.lastname@example.org | 648-3140 December 28, 2011 11:24PM
Jeffrey D. Nicholls/Post-Tribune Mark Lazerus Post-Tribune sports editor
Updated: January 30, 2012 10:34AM
VALPARAISO — This wasn’t exacty bragging. It certainly wasn’t trash talk. It probably doesn’t even qualify as a guarantee heading into Valparaiso’s Horizon League home game tonight against Milwaukee.
Fact is, Ryan Broekhoff almost sounded like he was trying to convince himself.
“If, no when, WHEN we get this win — ha, ha — we’ll be sending a statement to the league that we are ready and that the last three weeks are behind us,” the Valparaiso junior said. “We’ve moved on, and conference (play) definitely is a different ballgame.”
That’s the hope, at least.
Confidence has rarely been an issue for the Crusaders this season.
Before the season began, when everyone said Valparaiso would be a middle-of-the-pack team simply setting the stage for what promised to be a tremendous 2012-13 campaign, the Crusaders scoffed and said they were ready to win right now.
When they beat Akron and Duquesne in one weekend, opening some eyes around the league, the Crusaders shrugged it off as entirely expected.
And when they walked out of Hinkle Fieldhouse with what appeared to be a potential season-defining win at Butler, the Crusaders said they were sending a statement to the rest of the league.
Less than four weeks later, after losing three games to Summit League teams, Valparaiso is trying to send another message to its fans, to the league, even to itself — there’s nothing to worry about. Everything’s OK. Honest.
“We’re definitely still confident,” junior Matt Kenney said. “We know what we can do, we know how we played against Butler, and that weekend we played against Akron and Duquesne. We know what we’re capable of.”
Well, it’s time to show it.
League play begins in earnest tonight. The mid-February Bracket Buster game aside, it’s nothing but conference opponents from here on out. And if the Crusaders hope to contend for the league championship, they’ll have to snap out of their funk and regain that early season form.
After all, the rest of the league saw the loss to IPFW. Saw the loss at home to Oakland in which VU blew a 16-point second-half lead. Saw the sluggish, come-from-behind victory over winless Northern Illinois. Saw the blowout loss against IUPUI.
Saw Valparaiso tumble from contender status back to middle-of-the-pack status — all while Butler knocked off Purdue and Stanford, while Milwaukee gave Wisconsin all it could handle, while Cleveland State kept piling up road wins, while Detroit got Eli Holman back and made runs at Alabama and Mississippi State.
The Crusaders can quickly get back in the conversation with a win tonight against Milwaukee — last year’s top tournament seed and a legitimate contender this year.
“Obviously, whenever you lose a game that you’re expected to win, the perception of you is going to drop a little bit,” Kenney said. “I think we just have to learn from these losses, and take the mistakes and turn them into opportunities to get better.”
Now, coaches rarely come out and simply say, “We blew it.” And they rarely come into a game saying, “We’re going to win.” After a particularly bad game, they have to massage both their players’ egos and the public perception by framing the loss. They’ll say things like, “It’s no excuse, but…” then make an excuse. And before a particularly winnable game, they’ll tout the other team as world-beaters and temper expectations.
It’s part of the job. A part with which Bryce Drew is becoming quite familiar. Against IPFW, he said the Mastodons simply shot the lights out (they did). Against IUPUI, he said the Crusaders were still sluggish after finals week (they were). And now, against Milwaukee, he said the Crusaders are battling injuries (they are, though Broekhoff said his ailing hip is feeling much better and that he’ll play).
So ask Drew if this week’s home games against Milwaukee and Green Bay need to be statement games, and he’ll blanch at the question.
“I’m first worried about getting our guys healthy,” he said. “My big thing is to get our top nine guys healthy to give us a chance.”
But the players know the reality of the situation. That there are no excuses left this week. Finals are long over. Christmas is behind them. Campus is a ghost town this week, so there are no distractions — it’s an NBA-style schedule, with two practices a day, film study, weight-lifting sessions, and nothing else.
And it’s a home game. And it’s Milwaukee — the Crusaders’ best rival since joining the league. Sure, everyone wants to beat Butler, but VU and UWM have had some epic, unforgettable, down-to-the-wire battles over the last four years.
“I’d probably say they’re out biggest rival — them and Butler,” Broekhoff said. “We always get up for Butler, because they’ve been the benchmark in the league. But there’s definitely that little extra incentive, that past history, that gets us up for Milwaukee.
“And for us, it’s about defending our home court and making sure we don’t lose at home.”
That starts tonight. If the Crusaders want to prove they’re among the Horizon League’s elite, and prove that the few weeks were nothing but a brief drop on what Drew called the standard “roller coaster of a basketball season,” tonight is statement night.
They’re rested. They’re focused. They’re healthy enough to play.
Now it’s time to find out if they’re for real.
“The last few weeks gives us a little chip on our shoulder,” Kenney said. “We know it’ll give us some momentum going into league play if we can make a statement and get these two games. It’s crunch time.”