The images of Valparaiso's last trip to the CollegeInsider.com tournament are still hard to shake three years later. Whether it was Brandon Wood going through the motions in one of his lowest scoring games in a Valparaiso uniform or director of athletics Mark LaBarbera sitting high above the court with his head in his hands, the Crusaders never looked interested in hosting Iona in 2011. That says nothing of the widely-circulated rumors that members of the team were at a dance club the night before the game.
So just what will be different this time around when Valparaiso hosts Columbia on Tuesday night in the first round of the 2014 CIT?
"I think there was a lot more emotion at the end of that season," Drew said of the 2011 campaign. "In essence we were one layup away from a conference title. We got to the semis of the conference tournament and there was just a big let down. We could've won the league. We haven't quite had that emotion this year."
Drew's point is well taken and it's not as if he was saying that his current team played without feeling in the Horizon League tournament this year. The 2011 Crusaders were a veteran group with Cory Johnson, Howard Little and Michael Rogers. Throw in Wood and the Crusaders had designs on a conference title. Had Rogers hit a layup against Milwaukee, Valparaiso would've won the regular season and locked up at least a NIT bid. The Crusaders had added chances to win the title at Green Bay (Little took a bad charge and traveled on a rebound) and at home against Loyola (arguably the worst home loss in recent memory). By the time the team got to Selection Sunday and failed to lock up a NIT bid, the CIT was a distant consolation prize that few on the team took seriously. Wood had mentally checked out already, Johnson/Little/Rogers struggled to move beyond a missed NCAA tournament opportunity and Ryan Broekhoff battled a brutal virus.
Fast forward to this season and Drew is making it perfectly clear that his objective in the CIT is to get a head start on the 2014-15 season. Bobby Capobianco (back/knee) and Jordan Coleman (academics) will be held out of the tournament and Drew will be using the practice time to work with his younger players. Lavonte Dority doesn't know much about the 2011 CIT team, but when told about how that year ended on Wednesday night, Dority simply responded by saying "We want to win this thing...we want to go out the right way." Dority spoke about how playing in the CIT was another opportunity to take the court and how that shouldn't be taken for granted, regardless if the tournament wasn't originally among Valparaiso's goals for the season.
Just how serious the Crusaders take the CIT won't be known until the ball tips on Tuesday night. What is known is that teams that perform well in the CIT typically carry that success into the following season. Since the tournament began in 2009, three of the five champions played up in a tournament the following year. Old Dominion (2009) beat Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament while Missouri State (2010) and Mercer (2012) won games in the NIT. 2013 champion East Carolina will likely compete in the CIT again this season after getting knocked out of the Conference USA tournament on Wednesday night. Only 2012 champion Santa Clara finished the following season with a losing record.
That's not to say that Valparaiso is going to roll through the tournament and win this year, but the Crusaders can certainly shake off the bad feelings from late-season losses to Cleveland State, Wright State and Milwaukee. More importantly, Dority can officially pass the torch to Alec Peters and the rest of his freshmen classmates and maybe even win a few games while they're at it.