Valparaiso's season came to an end on Tuesday night in what seemed to be a cruel repeat of similar games from earlier in the year. Columbia delivered the third buzzer-beating defeat of the season at the Athletics-Recreation Center. Throw in a triple overtime loss at home to NCAA tourney participant Mercer and the Crusaders certainly came up short at key times this season.
Now it's time to take a step back and assess where the program goes from here. I'll do this over the next several weeks, but I wanted to provide my initial thoughts with the sting of Tuesday's loss still fresh in the minds of the Valparaiso faithful.
As the 2013-14 body of work was still warm, the vultures hit the Valparaiso message board on Tuesday night spewing venom with their fangs exposed. Posters criticized Valparaiso's final five games (warranted) and expressed doubts that this collection of underclassmen would be able to accomplish anything for the next two years (highly unwarranted).
This group of Crusaders, and I'm talking about the entire roster, was always a story of two groups. One on hand there were four transplanted seniors that entered the season with a combined seven starts in a Valparaiso uniform. Dority, Gueye, Capobianco and Coleman were certainly key to this season, but don't kid yourself, this year was always about establishing and providing a proving ground for the freshmen. Bryce Drew made it clear from the start of the year (freshmen played 78 of 200 minutes against Murray State) that he was going with the youth in key situations. We would've seen this a lot more had Clay Yeo not battled a litany of injuries throughout the year.
Drew baptized his youngsters by fire throughout the season, often throwing four of them on the floor in games when the outcome had already been decided. There is no shortcut to experience and Drew got his freshmen as much experience as possible this season. It's one of the big reasons why Valpo ponied up the money to host a postseason game. I'm sure there is plenty of grumbling about that sort of financial investment, especially after the Iona debacle in 2011, but the point of successful return was never about this season. Sure, a CIT title run would've been nice, but playing in this game, and to a greater extent, playing the freshmen big minutes throughout the year, was always about laying the foundation for the 2014-15 season.
The biggest positive jump that an athlete makes in college comes between their freshmen and sophomore seasons. It's clear that players such as Jubril Adekoya and Lexus Williams hit a wall at the end of the season. Alec Peters hit his rough patch in January and ultimately punched through. Yeo will likely go through a bigger improvement than any of his classmates over the summer as he fills out his frame in the weight room. Throw in Nick Davidson, who could still embrace a Diebleresque roll on this team and the Crusaders have their homework for the summer.
One of Valparaiso's detractors posted on Tuesday night that the Crusaders played "awful basketball at every turn" this season. I'm not here trying to agree or disagree with that statement, but I do want to take a look at some revealing data that might shine a bright light toward next season.
The Crusaders graduated six seniors last year off a 26-8 team. All five starters were lost to graduation and Valparaiso came back with an 18-16 campaign.
Ignoring the group of Cory Johnson/Brandon Wood/Howard Little/Michael Rogers (mainly because a freshmen class didn't follow their departure), the last group of seniors/players to leave en masse and hand the program to a series of newcomers was in 2007-08. Jarryd Loyd, Shawn Huff and Samuel Haanpaa (toss in Calum MacLeod and Bryan Bouchie) left the program in the hands of Erik Buggs, Logan Jones, De'Andre Haskins and Cameron Witt. That team went 9-22.
When Jake Diebler and Urule Igbavboa graduated after the 2008-09 season, paving the way for Broekhoff, Kenney and friends, the Crusaders were just 15-17 that season.
Going back further, when Dan Oppland, Ron Howard, Ali Berdiel, Mo Kone, Jimmie Miles and Seth Colclasure graduated in 2006, they gave way to the rising sophomore class of Diebler, Igbavboa and McPherson along with freshmen Haanpaa and Keaton Fyre. That team finished just 16-15.
Sure the Crusaders went to the NCAA tournament when Miles, Oumar Sylla, Moussa Mbaye and Kenny Harris replaced the class of Raitis Grafs, Stalin Ortiz and Antti Nikkila, but the 2003-04 team also produced the worst record (18-13) since 1992-93.
The point is, Valparaiso rarely delivers a strong season when freshmen are the focal point. Not since Lubos Barton, Milo Stovall and Greg Tonagel arrived on campus in the fall of 1998, replacing Bryce Drew and the Sweet Sixteen seniors, have the Crusaders delivered a 20+ win season behind an underclassmen-dominated team.
As I continued to read the detractors on the message board and Twitter on Tuesday, I continued to ask myself...just what were people expecting this season? Another NCAA appearance? Another conference title? Sure, losses in four of the last five games leave something to be desired. Valparaiso hasn't finished a season on such a slide since 2004-05. All that said, the Crusaders took plenty of steps forward in the reloading process this season. Detroit suffered similar personnel losses this season and the Titans were terrible. Cleveland State went through a rough patch last year before bouncing back and capturing the No. 2 seed this season. Look for the Crusaders to do the same next year.