When it came to choosing a stance on the two most significant storylines discussed at Horizon League men’s basketball media day on Wednesday, it seemed like it was Valparaiso on one side, and everyone else on the other.
The first important piece of offseason news made the Crusaders cringe, and seemingly everyone else smile. The 2016 Horizon League Tournament will be held at a neutral site in Detroit, instead of being hosted by the regular-season conference champion.
Youngstown State coach Jerry Slocum called it a “league lifesaver.” Oakland coach Greg Kampe said to be a “big-time player” in college basketball, leagues must play at a neutral site.
“I don’t believe we have an advantage because it’s close to us,” Kampe said. “From a playing standpoint, I don’t see it, but I’m probably the only one that would say that. I think Detroit is going to become a destination city for the Horizon League. If everybody embraces that, this league can take off. That idea of being big-time can take care of itself.”
Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew and star player Alec Peters didn’t come out and oppose the neutral-site tournament. But the league favorites certainly didn’t echo the glowing endorsement for the neutral site provided by the league’s other teams.
“It’s something new,” Drew said. “Since I’ve been here, it’s always been at a school site. I’m anxious to see how it goes throughout the year.”
Another hot topic at Wednesday’s gathering was the news that broke over the summer that 6-foot-11 Valparaiso center Vashil Fernandez is back for another season of NCAA eligibility. The reactions to the Fernandez news were equally as predictable as those to the tournament location. This time, it was Drew doing the smiling, leaving Kampe and company with the opposite emotion.
“It made me cry,” said Kampe, whose Grizzlies were picked to finish second behind the Crusaders. “I have the greatest respect for him. I thought he was a very good player, and I was glad to see that he was graduated and gone. He’s a unique entity in our league. When the ball got in there, 50 percent of the time it didn’t go in, because it got swatted.”
Slocum seconded Kampe’s respect for Valparaiso’s big man.
“I think he’s the difference for them, I really do,” Slocum said. “I know they have Peters and the Walkers and all those guys, but I think he’s the most irreplaceable guy on their team. He’s a rim protector; he changes shots. At our level, if you have a rim protector and a great point guard, you are going to have a lot of success.”
Success is exactly what Valparaiso is expected to enjoy. After all, the Crusaders return 98 percent of their scoring from a team that went to the NCAA Tournament and pushed Maryland to the brink of elimination in a first-round game. Plus, the Crusaders add a healthy Lexus Williams, now-eligible Shane Hammink and true freshman Derrik Smits.
The Crusaders were well represented on the all-league preseason team, with Peters earning first-team honors and Fernandez, Tevonn Walker and Darien Walker notching spots on the second-team.
Instead of focusing on the pressure and high expectations, the Crusaders are locked in on earning redemption for a 65-62 season-ending loss to the Terrapins.
“I also have a specific high school game that continues to drive me,” Peters said. “My senior year got cut short, and that still motivated me to this day. It motivates me to be a better player and a better teammate the next year.”
Contact Brandon Vickrey at email@example.com.