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MUTKA: Alec Peters ranks high on Valpo’s learning curve; Wisconsin on the rise

Valparaiso's Alec Peters attempts layup over ClevelState's Ludovic Ndaye during their game held Valparaiso University Saturday March 1 2014. |

Valparaiso's Alec Peters attempts a layup over Cleveland State's Ludovic Ndaye during their game held at Valparaiso University on Saturday March 1, 2014. | Charles Mitchell/for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 4, 2014 6:25AM



Freshmen have more ups and downs than your favorite roller coaster, which helps to explain Valparaiso’s modest 17-14 record and No. 4 seed going into the Horizon League basketball tournament.

Five rookies account for more than 41 percent of the dethroned Crusaders’ playing time. They contribute varying degrees of highs and lows to the Division I learning curve.

Unpredictability is the norm when even departing seniors Bobby Capobianco, LaVonte Dority, Moussa Gueye and Jordan Coleman have been short-term members of the program. Being bereft of four-year players makes it that much more difficult to develop team chemistry.

Most of the freshman highs have been supplied by Alec Peters, a sharpshooting sniper from Washington, Ill. Except for a midseason glitch he has shown surprising consistency. One of two Crusaders to start every game, the solid 6-8 forward is averaging 12 points. That’s the best rookie showing since Lubosh Barton put up 13.8 numbers in the 1998-99 season.

He’s made a quantum leap, going from a middle-sized high school to a mid-major Division I program. Suddenly, you’re no longer the biggest kid on the block and are dealing with missed classes because of travel. Juggling athletics with academics can be stressful.

“You come back from a trip, two days away from campus and remember you’ve got an assignment due,” says Peters, grinning ruefully.

Studies aside, he’s a deadly corner shooter. Peters has connected on nearly 48 percent of his attempts. Aided by two 30-point binges, he’s been named the Horizon League freshman of the week four times.

“Size is the biggest change,” he said, speaking of adjustments. “Now you’re playing against four people taller than you. You have to keep in mind when you’re attacking the basket that everybody’s stronger, quicker, more athletic.”

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you catch his drift.

Mailing in his shots from a different zip code, Peters has buried 49 three-pointers with solid .371 marksmanship. In that category he is joined by fellow freshman, Lexus Williams, a 21-game starter who also leads the Crusaders in assists and steals.

“I’ve always been tabbed as a guy who can shoot threes,” said Peters, exuding quiet confidence. “I feel like I’ve gotten quicker going to the basket and stronger finishing. Better ball movement. And my jumping ability has improved greatly.”

Peters considers himself a quick study, which is why Boston College and Illinois State also bid for his services. Coach Bryce Drew’s NBA experience swayed Peters, who admits to pro aspirations.

“I like what he has to say about how to improve my game,” Peters said. “It’s definitely an added bonus. I’m like a sponge, I pick up things pretty fast. You try to absorb everything the coaches say.”

Losing to Cleveland State Saturday didn’t affect VU’s status in the coming tournament. As No. 4 seed, the Crusaders will host UIC Tuesday, a team they’ve already beaten twice. Offensively, the Crusaders have wobbled, scoring fewer than 60 points in four of their last seven games. All four were losses.

Peters has been a notable exception, averaging 13 points during that down time. His bid for Horizon League freshman of the year honors is based on 17 double-figure efforts, factoids the Flames will surely include in their game plan.

“Playing a team for the third time is never easy,” said Peters, who understands how dangerous an improving last-place team can be with absolutely no pressure.

Badgers, Wolverines peaking at right time: Trying to make sense out of the whacky Big Ten race is enough to drive basketball gurus up the wall. Wisconsin and Michigan seem to be building major momentum for March Madness magic and Nebraska’s making a late charge thanks to a 14-1 record in its welcoming new arena, but everybody else is treading water or worse.

What cranky Coach Bo Ryan has done to maintain one of the most overlooked elite programs in the country borders on miraculous. Wisconsin is headed for its 16th consecutive NCAA appearance thanks to a school record 16-0 start.

That dominant stretch included victories over conference champions Florida (SEC), Green Bay (Horizon), Virginia (ACC) and Atlantic-10 leader St. Louis, which recently had a 19-game winning streak snapped.

What the methodical Badgers do best is limit turnovers to single digits, bury threes and swish free throws. Predictable to a fault, they have never deviated from a starting lineup of Sam Dekker (13.6 ppg), Frank Kaminsky (13.2), Ben Brust (12.6), Traevon Jackson (10.7) and Josh Gasser.

Dekker and Kaminsky average better than six rebounds a game, but that’s not one of Wisconsin’s strengths. Opponents aren’t capitalizing because the Badgers are a plus-77 from the arc. They have also swished 200 more free throws thanks to Brust and Gasser, who are pushing 90 percent at the line.

One of the best passing teams in the country, the Badgers have continued their mastery of Indiana on their way to a 23-5 record. A recent 69-58 win at Madison was their 13th in the last 14 meetings under Ryan, whose overall .703 winning percentage is No. 1 in Big Ten history.

Afterwards, IU Coach Tom Crean praised them for their ball movement with this remark: “a lot of times you’re getting ready for one or two guys to be very good passers, (but) their whole team is. Not only can all the starters shoot well, but they can pass the ball.”

Heading into the Big Ten tournament, which is already sold out for the return to Indy on March 13, Wisconsin and Michigan, which clinched a share of the Big Ten title by beating Minnesota Saturday, are guaranteed high NCAA seeds.

Wisconsin owns a No. 5 RPI rating, highest in the league, but Michigan showed its mental toughness by overcoming a 19-point deficit at Purdue and seems headed for its first undisputed conference crown since 1986.

The Wolverines have persevered all year despite the absence of Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway and Mitch McGary from last year’s Final Four entry.

Crippled Michigan State, once considered the odds-on favorite, is faltering without the leadership of injured point guard Keith Appling, and suffered a stunning loss at home to lowly Illinois despite the return of Branden Dawson.

Once hot Iowa has cooled off, stumbling at Indiana, while Ohio State was swept by Penn State for the first time since 1998. The Buckeyes lack a go-to-guy with LaQuinton Harris being their only player among the top 20 league scorers.

It’s hard to make a convincing argument for more than.five Big Ten bids, but Nebraska could sneak in with a strong showing in Indianapolis. Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota seem destined for the NIT appearances.



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