Although head coach Bryce Drew may be responsible for one of the most glamorous moments in NCAA Tournament history, his tournament run ended in the 1998 Sweet 16.
His assistant coach Matt Lottich one-upped him in 2001, when his Stanford team reached the Elite Eight. Lottich’s No. 1 seeded Cardinal had its season end at the hands of Maryland, the same team that sent Valparaiso packing in 2015.
Despite the success of others, only one of the Crusaders’ four coaches can boast NCAA championship experience.
Assistant Roger Powell Jr. started at power forward for 2004-05 runner-up Illinois, a team Sports Illustrated voted in 2014 “the best college basketball team not to win a title.”
Powell’s team was highlighted by the likes of All-American Dee Brown, second team All-Americans Luther Head and Deron Williams and Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player James Augustine. The four of them, along with Powell, made up the team’s starting five and all of them saw time in the NBA.
“It was amazing,” Powell said. “It was the best sports year of my life. We had a lot of success, going to the national championship game, the Final Four, going 29-0 and then obviously losing our last regular season game. It was fun. It was an amazing ride.”
Illinois started the season 29-0 before dropping the final game of the regular season to Ohio State. Illinois didn’t lose again until it met its match, North Carolina, in the national championship game.
“It’s something that you want for your players because you experienced it,” Powell said. “There’s nothing like it. Going to the Final Four, just the first Final Four meeting and they show the video, is amazing. It’s surreal.”
Powell was reunited with teammates Brown and Williams on the Utah Jazz for a short stint in 2006-07. Next, he continued his pro career in Europe. Seven years in, Powell had to make a big decision regarding his future.
“Over the years, I really felt like my heart was being drawn to skill-development, anything developing young men,” Powell said. “I wanted to do that. Over the years it led to a desire to coach in college. It was just a God-thing. I had to walk away from a professional career and the promise of making a lot of money and having a really good career to doing something I was called to, changing lives through the game of basketball at the collegiate level.”
Through Powell’s four years playing for the Illini, his teams appeared in 14 NCAA Tournament games and made three Sweet 16 appearances. With his wealth of tournament experience, he has words of wisdom to offer to the players he coaches as they equip for another postseason run.
“It’s something that you think is going to take commitment,” Powell said. “It takes a lot of discipline. It takes a lot of toughness. It takes your team being together. Experiencing that has helped me have some kind of springboard to help these guys with some kind of reference to give them stories and give them examples of what it took for our team to get there.”
Powell has a great dedication to the Valpo program and does it with a winning swagger.
“Obviously he’s been in the Final Four and the championship game, which is an awesome accomplishment,” Drew said. “He has some good memories from that time and probably some things he learned through the process. I think on a daily basis though, he pours his experiences into our guys. So I don’t think it’s a one-time thing but it’s kind of a daily thing that he does.”
With all Powell accomplished 11 years ago, he does not dwell in the past. Rather, he takes the valuable lessons that he gained and puts them into principle as an assistant.
“The biggest thing I learned was if you’re talented like that, if you’re not competitive and if you’re not hungry and if you don’t work, then your talent’s not going to do anything for you,” Powell said. “The thing that separated us in the four years I was at Illinois — we won the Big Ten every year — it was that we were so hungry and we were so competitive and we worked so hard. In practice, we wanted to win every drill. You can have a lot of talent but you’ve got to be disciplined and you’ve got be hungry. If you’re not hungry, you’re just not going to win in March.”
Now 11 years after the magical season, the Illini find themselves 11th in the Big Ten standings. But for the Crusaders, it’s been a different story. At 22-5 and 12-2 in conference play, they stand atop the Horizon League.