Last week the Valparaiso men’s basketball season came to a close, losing in the first round of the NIT to Illinois 82-57. The Crusaders finished the season 24-9 and Horizon League Regular Season co-champions.
A season that started with much promise and lofty expectations came to a crashing end, as the last third of the season was filled with a great deal of adversity that the Crusaders ultimately were unable to overcome.
But the chaos started much earlier than that and traces all the way back to last April. In the wake of three-time Horizon League Coach of the Year Bryce Drew’s departure, Matt Lottich was given the keys to the kingdom—a kingdom that would be losing some of its soldiers.
The inevitable graduation of Vashil Fernandez, E. Victor Nickerson and Darien Walker left shoes to be filled. But what the program did not anticipate would be the losses of starters David Skara and Keith Carter. Skara surprisingly transferred to Clemson while Carter was denied a fifth year of eligibility despite being forced to sit out two semesters as a transfer and missing time in his freshman campaign dealing with an injury.
The Crusaders, pegged as Horizon League preseason favorites, would be opening the season without five important players from last year’s team, two that they were not prepared to lose. But that wouldn’t be the last of it.
In early December, Jubril Adekoya was suspended indefinitely for an undisclosed “academic matter.” Little did the Crusaders know that it would be the end of the big man’s college career as the NCAA would make it a season-long suspension. The team reportedly became aware of this in the middle of February, with a little under a week and a half left in the regular season.
A week later, Lottich’s squad would suffer its greatest blow, losing leading scorer and rebounder Alec Peters for the season with a foot injury.
Even without Peters for the final weekend of the regular season, the Crusaders took care of business at Wright State, and came a couple of jump shots short of clinching the No. 1 seed in the Horizon League Tournament, instead losing to Northern Kentucky.
As if losing Peters and Adekoya wasn’t enough, the Crusaders would be playing with a limited Shane Hammink in the postseason. A source close to the team indicated that Hammink was in the hospital, dealing with a stomach illness. Hammink played significantly less minutes in both of the team’s postseason games, scoring a combined seven points between the two of them.
Undermanned, the Crusaders lost their opening game in Motor City Madness to the 10-seed Milwaukee 43-41, ending the team’s NCAA Tournament hopes.
As disappointing an end to the season as it was, the Crusaders should come out of the 2016-17 season with their chins up high. It’s a great feat in itself to win 24 games in a college basketball season, and it’s even greater given the context in which Valpo did it in.
Lottich won 24 games in his first year as head coach, despite losing seven key players. He also managed to do something that Bryce Drew never did as a Valpo head coach: beat a ranked opponent.
On November 29, Valpo beat No. 21 Rhode Island, snapping a 40-game losing streak to ranked opponents, tracing back to Drew’s Sweet Sixteen run in 1998.
Though the team will lose five seniors including Peters, Hammink and Adekoya, the program appears to be in great hands.
Lottich’s first year at the helm should be considered a great success, and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. One thing is certain: this isn’t the end of Valpo basketball, not by a long shot.
The views expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of The Torch.