The "unofficial" official beginning of the 2013-14 college basketball season is this Friday as the NCAA is now allowing men's basketball programs to begin practice three weeks earlier than normal.
Long gone are the days where the start of practice actually meant anything. It used to be that Midnight Madness would kick off the season. Now teams are doing work in the gym throughout the summer and in the first two months of the school year. I can still remember the hilarity of watching the 2002 Crusaders practice with a beach ball because basketballs weren't allowed in the gym until after Oct. 15.
With the start of the season around the corner, I took a look at the recently-released schedule to try and find when Valparaiso would be hosting its "rivalry game." You know, the one game where ESPN would be sure to roll into town and students would design shirts to commemorate the occasion. I couldn't find it.
I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but it's becoming increasingly clear to me that Valparaiso lacks a true rival.
Last season everyone was up in arms about Detroit. Obviously this stemmed from Ray McCallum dunking his way out of the Athletics-Recreation Center and on to the NCAA tournament in 2012. The Crusaders and Titans were on a crash course all season and played two epic comeback games that looked great on ESPN. Now with McCallum in the NBA and players like Nick "Macklemore" Minnerath and Jason Calliste elsewhere, does this "rivalry" matter anymore?
Before Detroit, there was Butler. It's hard for me to classify the Bulldogs as a rival for Valparaiso because that would mean that Butler looked at the Crusaders in that light. I have it on pretty good authority (anyone who ever has been on the Butler message board) that the fine folks of Naptown looked down on Valparaiso as the little brother who wasn't cool enough to play with the big kids. That rhetoric largely left (as did Butler) after the Crusaders won four straight against the nomadic Bulldogs.
Looking back to the Mid-Continent Conference days, the rivalries changed like the weather. Toward the end of the conference run, Oral Roberts was where the bulk of the venom went from the Valparaiso faithful from 2004-06. Stories of students going No. 2 on the praying hands in Tulsa are either completely true or deranged urban legend.
IUPUI tried to carve out a rivalry with the Crusaders in the early part of the century, but I'm sure Valparaiso fans looked at the Jaguars in the same way that Butler looked at the Crusaders. Southern Utah was too far away to be considered a logical rival, but ending Valparaiso's streak of NCAA tournament runs was enough to get consideration. Oakland was a rival when it arrived in the Mid-Con and won a share of the 1999-00 conference title despite not beating Valparaiso. It was difficult to ever establish a rivalry with the Grizz for the simple fact that the Crusaders won the first 1,438 meetings between the two programs.
I attended Valparaiso from 1999-02 and professors of mine would tell me that Western Illinois was once a hot rivalry because both programs helped launch the Mid-Con. Short of Leslie Crane throwing a chair down a hallway or Macomb trolling me by being the lamest city in the United States, I never saw it. (I should remark that I visited Macomb only after spending the previous weeks in Hawaii, Arizona and Phog Allen Fieldhouse)
So does Valparaiso have a Horizon League rival?
Detroit and Oakland seemed destined for geographic hatred much like Milwaukee and Green Bay have. UIC and Loyola are no longer conference foes, but I just don't see the Valparaiso fan base getting excited over beating the Flames. The Ohio schools have their own thing with one another and that leaves Valparaiso hanging out alone in the center.
If there is one team that stands out as a possible rival this season, it's Wright State. Not only did the Raiders nearly break the collective heart of Valparaiso in the Horizon League title game last year, but Billy Donlon has just enough spunk to get under the skin of anyone who has never actually met him. (For my money, he's my favorite coach in college basketball) Donlon's approach (at least to the media) seems to fly in the face of Bryce Drew's approach. Where Drew is cautious and always quick to concentrate on his own team, Donlon will riff on just about any subject and always have you coming away seeing his point of view.
The reason why Wright State stands out as the rival right now is simple: The Raiders are the best team in the Horizon League. If there has been one constant over the years with Valparaiso and its rivals, the teams have always been either the best or the second-best teams in the conference. Detroit, Butler, Oral Roberts, IUPUI, Southern Utah, Oakland...they've all represented a threat to block Valparaiso from the NCAA tournament.
Isn't that the way it should be? The team that you want to beat more than any other is the team that is blocking what you want the most. I always laugh when I consider the Purdue/Indiana football rivalry. Sure it's a big deal to people from Indiana, but it just looks foolish to everyone else. You're really going to get excited about beating the Hoosiers on the football field? When have they ever posed a threat to anyone?
A geographic rival would be great for Valparaiso, but it's just not plausible. Purdue and Notre Dame are too big. UIC and Loyola are too "Chicago." The most natural rival for the Crusaders every year is the best team on the conference schedule. This has changed and will continue to change every couple years.