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Valparaiso plays Iona, college basketball

Valparaiso sophomore David Skara has requested his release and is expected to transfer from the program. 

The Times, John Luke

Skara's departure seemingly more about politics and less about basketball

When CBS and the NCAA came together earlier this month on an eight-year, $8.8 billion extension to keep the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on CBS and Turner through 2032, it was another stark reminder that college basketball really is just a business.

The casual basketball fan tunes into the NCAA tournament every year and is treated with countless stories about student-athletes balancing academics and athletics while representing their university deep into March Madness.

CBS pays an awful lot of money to the NCAA and the pair come together to put on a good show every year. What the casual basketball fan is oblivious to, and likely doesn’t even care to know about, is that while the Road to the Final Four doesn’t necessarily start on a yellow brick path, the end result is still someone behind a curtain pulling the strings and making sure business is good for just about everyone but the student-athletes.

This is the story of a college basketball player who, perhaps unwillingly, finds himself in the center of two unique situations. There is one school that he is suddenly leaving after a potential failed power play by two individuals and another school which he isn’t even allowed to consider while looking for a new home.

This is the story of Valparaiso sophomore David Skara.

Skara, a native of Zadar, Croatia, arrived in the United States in 2013 and spent that season playing at the Midwest Elite Prep Basketball Academy (now Don Bosco Prep) in Merrillville. Skara averaged 16 points and eight rebounds per game and drew the attention of several mid-major basketball programs. Green Bay coach Brian Wardle was the first to become enamored with Skara’s game and others soon followed, including Bryce Drew and the Valparaiso Crusaders.

Drew and assistant coach Roger Powell began recruiting Skara, ultimately securing a verbal commitment from the 6-foot-8 forward on April 24, 2014. Skara signed his national letter of intent a week later and became the third member of Valparaiso’s Class of 2018 along with Canadian guards Tevonn Walker and Max Joseph.

Skara’s career got off to a quick start as he scored 11 points in a season-opening win over East Tennessee State in his first collegiate game and then added a career-high 17 points two games later against IU-South Bend. Skara’s 33 points in his first three games were the second most from a Valparaiso player in the Horizon League Era (2007-present), trailing just Erik Buggs (40). Skara’s freshman season was uneven after the fast start as he had as many scoreless games (five) as he did games in double figures until the 2015 Horizon League title game when Skara scored a team-high 12 points to lead the Crusaders to a 54-44 win over Green Bay and back to the NCAA tournament.

Skara carried high expectations into his sophomore season and he looked on the verge of a breakout campaign when he scored 14 points in a season-opening win over IPFW. Those expectations came crashing down the next game when Skara suffered a sprained ankle and was sidelined for the better part of two weeks, including losses to Oregon and Ball State. The Croatian native worked his way back from injury and was inserted into the starting lineup when Horizon League play on January 2. Skara responded by scoring at least eight points in five straight games, but struggled to break into double figures on a consistent basis. Agony struck again when Skara suffered yet another ankle injury in a marquee Horizon League contest against Oakland, forcing the sophomore to miss the final three regular season games of the year. Skara returned for the Horizon League semifinals, scoring 10 points in a losing effort against Green Bay. The sophomore had the best moment of his Valparaiso career in the penultimate game of the 2015-16 season when he hit the eventual game-winning 3-pointer to beat BYU in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals. Skara finished with 15 points, his highest point total since the third game of his collegiate career.

The Crusaders saw their season come to a close two nights later at the hands of George Washington and the program was quickly thrown into a state of unrest when Bryce Drew returned from the Final Four as Vanderbilt’s new coach. Questions swirled as to the fate of the coaching staff and the situation took several days to shake out. Once the dust settled Drew and Powell were off to Nashville while assistant coach Matt Lottich was promoted to become Valparaiso’s new head coach and the first non-Drew in charge of the program in 28 years.

Lottich was introduced at a press conference one week after the season-ending loss with many of Valparaiso’s players in attendance. Many players, including Skara, expressed their endorsement of Lottich in public interviews after the news conference. The player and coach had grown close to each other over Skara’s first two years with the program and there didn’t seem to be any hesitancy toward embracing the new era of Valparaiso basketball on that Thursday afternoon.

“This is great because we already know Coach Lottich,” Skara said. “It’s easier when you know the person and they know who you are. This was important, the hiring of Coach Lottich.”

Dave Maravilla has been following the Valparaiso basketball program for 20 years. In 1990 Maravilla founded International Sport Management, a sports agency that specialized in international basketball players. Maravilla’s bio on the Don Bosco Prep website boasts more than 500 professional basketball contracts in a period spanning 24 years.

Maravilla’s bio also indicates a “strong sense for player evaluations and great personal relationships with many college basketball coaches that span more than two decades…a built-in network that will provide the necessary Division I exposure to student-athletes.”

Maravilla’s network has included Valparaiso dating back to the mid-90’s when then-assistant coach Scott Drew began tapping into the European landscape to find talented big men. It was those players that ultimately helped the Crusaders turn the corner and get to the NCAA tournament on a consistent basis. Players from that era that had relationships with Maravilla included Zoran Viskovic, Marko Punda and Ivan Vujic. Maravilla later had a connection with Ali Berdiel and recent players Milos Milosevic and Hrvoje Vucic. Maravilla and ISM later represented Viskovic, Vujic and Berdiel, among other former Valparaiso players as they pursued professional playing careers.

In 2013 Maravilla sold the International Sports Management agency and according to his bio, “undertook an ambitious new project that would benefit many aspiring college players both in the Midwest and globally.” Maravilla helped to establish the Midwest Elite Prep Basketball Academy, which was later renamed Don Bosco Prep. Much like he had with players such as Viskovic, Vujic and Berdiel, Maravilla established a relationship with David Skara at a young age and helped bring the talented player to the United States.

The extent of which Maravilla had influence over Skara’s college decision in 2014 is unknown, but Skara ended up choosing Valparaiso over Green Bay, UIC and Robert Morris.

Matt Lottich was introduced as Valparaiso’s new basketball coach on April 7th and it was on that day that Skara expressed his excitement about his new coach. By April 18th, just 11 days later, word came down that Skara had switched gears and had suddenly asked for his release. While Valparaiso has yet to publicly acknowledge the situation, multiple sources have confirmed that Skara was granted his release and intends to transfer.

“Any situation where there’s a coaching change there will be movement of players in and out,” Maravilla said when reached on Wednesday afternoon. “That’s only natural.”

The fact that Valparaiso is losing a player to transfer should hardly be a surprise. There are well over 450 Division I transfers this season and that number could balloon when you take into account graduate transfers that will continue to flip teams over the summer. The Crusaders have lost numerous players via transfer over the years, most recently Clay Yeo (Bethel), Jay Harris (Wagner/UIC) and Brandon Wood (Michigan State). Hrvoje Vucic (Walsh) and Milos Milosevic (Southern Nazarene) have also transferred within the last six years.

The surprise should come in that Skara was a key contributor on a team that won 58 games over the last two years and had expressed excitement about the new direction of the program just 11 days prior to asking for his release. One could certainly understand a player wanting to transfer if his head coach suddenly left the program, but it was Skara that indicated he was happy that a coach he had a relationship with was taking over the program. It appears that other relationships became more important.

“David was recruited by Bryce (Drew) and Roger (Powell),” Maravilla said. “I’ve had a great rapport with the Drew’s and Valparaiso for 20 years and I hope that will continue. This was nothing personal, but a decision that was made on circumstances. David felt it was in his best interest to move on.”

Maravilla indicated on Wednesday afternoon that Skara wouldn’t speak publicly until he signed with a new program. While Maravilla denied getting into specifics of which programs had shown interest in the sophomore forward, he did illustrate what level Skara was hoping to land at with his next stop.

“Several high majors have already offered him,” Maravilla said. “David came to Valparaiso because of Bryce Drew. Now David is an experienced guy. He’s not naïve. He recognizes where he’s at and where he can go. The fact that high majors have reached out to him, that validates what he did. He can go two levels higher than the Horizon League.”

So what led a player who was universally loved on campus, highly thought of by the new coaching staff and who himself shared similar admiration for the new head coach suddenly decide that he was ready to leave a program where he was bound to be a focal point next season? Could it really be that a player who averaged less than six points per game in his career and suffered through an injury-riddled sophomore season was suddenly ready for the rigors of Big 12 or ACC play on a nightly basis?

Or could it have been an altogether different reason?

Ivan Vujic arrived in the United States from Split, Croatia in 1996 where he played his first two years of college basketball at Vincennes University. Vujic transferred to Valparaiso in the fall of 1998 and he helped launch the post-Bryce Drew playing era by helping the Crusaders to a pair of NCAA tournament appearances while averaging 10.6 points and 5.7 rebounds as a senior. Vujic signed with Maravilla out of college and played professional basketball for two seasons before suffering a career-ending knee injury that helped shift his focus to coaching.

Vujic returned to Valparaiso to serve as the director of basketball operations in 2005-06 before taking the same position at DePaul for two seasons. Vujic became an assistant coach at Northwestern in 2008 and two years later, helped 7-foot center Alex Olah come to the United States from Romania. Working with Maravilla, Vujic helped establish Olah at Traders Point Christian Academy. Vucic was on Northwestern’s staff when Olah arrived for his freshman year in 2012. The pair spent one year together before Vujic left the Wildcats when Chris Collins took over the program. Vujic landed back at DePaul for two seasons and then left the program when Oliver Purnell was let go following the 2014-15 season. Vujic spent the 2015-16 season serving as video coordinator at Marshall University in West Virginia.

With Lottich getting promoted at Valparaiso and Luke Gore being the only remaining assistant coach on staff, the first-year coach suddenly had two openings and a lengthy list of applicants, one of which was suspected to be Vujic.

Maravilla seemingly confirmed Vujic’s interest on Wednesday afternoon and may have very well provided a glimpse into why Skara suddenly had a change of heart.

“Now there have been rumors that Ivan Vujic was involved; maybe had a conversation on the phone,” Maravilla said. “Was he a candidate for a job? Would it have been a smart hire? I don’t know. If I’m a new guy and I see a coach with international ties that could help the program, I would think a guy like that; I would strongly consider him.”

As Maravilla later went on to discuss Skara’s reasons for wanting to transfer, including the chance to play two levels higher, he ended his line of thinking with a more blatant connection between Vujic and Skara.

“Would things be different if Vujic came in?” Maravilla said. “Possibly; this wasn’t something that was predetermined. Hiring Vujic would’ve made a lot of sense.”

The only remaining question is how much impact Vujic’s failure to land an assistant position on Lottich’s staff affected Skara. Was the sophomore so enraged that he suddenly had a change of heart concerning Lottich’s ascension to the big office, or was Skara directed that it was time to leave Valparaiso by two individuals who tried to parlay their connection to a talented player into a job on Lottich’s staff? The only person who can answer that question has said, according to Maravilla, that he won’t talk publicly until he picks his new program. Better to look through the windshield than the rear-view mirror. Perhaps that’s why the local media in Valparaiso have yet to hear from Bryce Drew since he departed for Vanderbilt.

So where might Skara end up? Maravilla referenced multiple offers from high majors programs, but one school that seems out of reach for Skara is the program that he would seemingly be most comfortable with – Vanderbilt. Maravilla confirmed what multiple sources had referenced earlier in the week, that Valparaiso has blocked Skara from transferring to any school in the Horizon League as well as Vanderbilt. That information did not sit kindly with Maravilla.

“Bryce (Drew) brought these guys in,” Maravilla said. “Would they have college coaching jobs if he didn’t hire them? It’s un-Valpo like. If (Vanderbilt) would be David’s destination, I don’t think it should’ve come to (being blocked). Valparaiso has a tradition of winning and has an obligation to do things a certain way.”

Transfer restrictions outside of conference are nothing new to college basketball. Ironically, the transfer restriction that received the biggest press in recent years came when then-Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings blocked the transfer of freshman Sheldon Jeter back to Pittsburgh, Jeter's hometown university. 

Jeter appealed the decision and was denied. Jeter could've paid his own way at Pitt for his first year but decided to enroll at Polk State in Florida for a year instead. Jeter eventually transferred to Pitt and is expected to be a key contributor this coming season under...wait for Pitt coach Kevin Stallings.  

Is it fair that Valparaiso is blocking Skara from a school that he potentially wants to attend? Is that block in place to set a precedent for perhaps the next Valparaiso player who may want to depart for Nashville?

On the other hand, is it fair for an individual to even float the possibility that an amateur athlete was suddenly departing a program because a coach with ties to said player was potentially denied employment?

The only certainty is that in this world of million dollar coaching contracts and billion dollar television contracts, everybody has their hand out looking for theirs. College basketball is a business, plain and simple, and the players are puppets on a string, here for our entertainment and for someone else’s profit.