Valparaiso 61, Belmont 57
VALPARAISO | Shortly before David Skara arrived on Valparaiso's campus from Don Bosco Prep last fall, his then-coach and former VU player Chris Artis had some high praise for the Croatian native.
Artis referred to Skara as "Born Ready" and that the kid who burst on the scene at the 2012 FIBA U17 Championships could go down as the best international player to ever don a Valparaiso uniform.
Tony Vilcinskas, Zoran Viskovic, Ivan Vujic, Tony Falu, Stalin Ortiz, Raitis Grafs, Kikas Gomes, Ali Berdiel, Roberto Nieves, Samuel Haanpaa, Shawn Huff, Kevin Van Wijk, Moussa Gueye, Ryan Broekhoff.
The list of international players that have stood out over the last 20 years is lengthy and Artis has been part of the Valparaiso basketball family for that entire stretch having joined the Crusaders the same year Vilcinskas came to Northwest Indiana. Artis has seen it all and he's not prone to hyperbole, so when he said Skara had the goods, people listened.
If there was one player that I was eager to see this season it was Skara. It's not a stretch to say the Crusaders don't go to the NCAA tournament without Skara last year as his performance against Green Bay, underrated as it may have been, was one for the ages. With a full year in Valparaiso's conditioning program under his belt, Skara looked poised for a breakout season following a strong trip to Canada and impressive preseason practices.
Those expectations came crashing down in the second game of the season when Skara suffered a sprained ankle against Iona. Sprained ankles aren't anything new for Skara and the sophomore was diligent about his rehab.
Bryce Drew didn't take Skara to Rhode Island and he was left in street clothes for the next four games after that. Drew wanted to ease Skara back into action against Ball State, but an early deficit took away the luxury of letting Skara work out the kinks in game action. Finally with a couple days of practice to shake off the rust, Skara found himself back in his regular rotation spot during Thursday night's game against Belmont.
Drew said earlier in the week that Skara's minutes would be directly related to his conditioning. Given that his nickname is "Born Ready," Skara was fully prepared when his number was called. The sophomore played 26 minutes, and while the stat sheet doesn't show anything flashy with just seven points and five rebounds, it was the manner in which he produced that showed the Valparaiso faithful what they had been missing over the six games.
Thursday's win will be remembered for Skara's two key offensive rebounds late in the game, the second which led to a quick field goal while getting fouled that took a two-point lead and turned it into an insurmountable five-point lead. That said, there were other moments. I tweeted 31 minutes earlier after he hit his second layup of the game that "Skara just makes plays. Plain and simple."
It was never more evident when Valparaiso needed him most.
What it means: CBS Sports' Matt Norlander didn't come out and say that Thursday night's game was an at-large consideration elimination game but the tone was certainly there in a column he wrote following Valparaiso's victory. (Yes, the Crusaders won a non-conference game where the national media was paying attention. This is Valpo's new normal in 2015)
The Crusaders needed to shake off the loss to Ball State and now have almost an entire week off before they travel to Indiana State on Wednesday. The rest of the non-conference schedule is very manageable and it's highlighted by a return trip to Belmont on Dec. 28 in the final game before Horizon League play starts.
The Bruins are going to win a lot of games this year and Valparaiso's victory on Thursday will fall in alongside wins over Rhode Island, Iona and Oregon State on a resume that already looks more complete than anything the Crusaders have brought to the non-conference table in recent memory.
One reason to be excited: Belmont came into the game averaging 86 points per contest and the Crusaders simply denied the Bruins the chance to play at a breakneck speed. Valparaiso's defense is so often overlooked but there is no denying the fact that the Crusaders took a highly prolific offense and held them 29 points below their scoring averaging. Many will call Thursday's game an ugly win and while that may be true on the offensive end, Valparaiso's defensive performance was a thing of beauty.
One reason to panic: It appears this Tevonn Walker injury could be a thing. After speaking with Valparaiso fans who traveled to Oregon to watch the team, I learned that Walker appeared to be in a lot of discomfort while walking off the court following the Oregon State game. Where I thought that maybe Drew was being overly cautious by sitting Walker against Ball State, it appears there are some legs to this injury.
As most injuries go at Valpo, the school or the coaching staff is never forthcoming with information. David Chadwick couldn't walk under his own power last year and Drew referred to him as "day-to-day." Keith Carter's toe was pointing toward the heavens and Valpo was "waiting for another opinion." This word on Tevonn according to Drew is that he is "day-to-day" and that could mean "a week or maybe a couple weeks." Yeah, I don't know what that means either.
Ouch: Is it just me or does everyone else cringe at the following two moments...
1) Whenever E. Victor Nickerson falls to the ground and puts his hands (and wrists) out to break his fall.
2) Whenever Keith Carter jumps for a long rebound and he comes falling back to earth with all the force on his feet (and toes).
There were a few moments on Thursday when I expected either Nickerson or Carter to crumple to the floor. Both players looked fine after the game, but the pair certainly took their lumps in a physical game.
Quotable: "As I look at their travel, we're probably the two teams that have been on the road more than many of the teams in the country." -- Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew on Belmont.
What's next: The Crusaders will get a few more days of practice, and maybe even an off-day, before returning to the court next Wednesday at Indiana State. The Sycamores (3-3) will face Butler over the weekend and should be another good mid-major test for the Crusaders. Wednesday's game is the first in a four-year series with ISU. The Sycamores will come to the ARC each of the next two years and then Valparaiso will return to Terre Haute in 2018.