What if? The 9 and 22 Edition
Journalism ethics tells us that reporters aren't supposed to be fans. I do my best to adhere to this when I'm covering games. Instead of cheering for teams, I cheer for stories (and for quick finishes on deadline).
Except for when it comes to the Green Bay Packers. I'm unapologetically a Cheesehead and I have my ownership certificate prominently displayed in my living room.
That said, phrases like "4th & 26" and "Fail Mary" make my skin cringe whenever I hear them. The fact that singular plays have the power to make me sick to my stomach whenever I think of them speaks to their impact.
There have been many singular Valparaiso basketball plays over the years that have stood out, such as the Mike Rogers layup, Jarryd Loyd's airball, Ali Berdiel's turnover against Purdue or Jason Gardner's four-point play on a "foul" at Arizona.
All of those plays pale in comparison to the term "9 and 22" that describes the 2008-09 season. There isn't one single moment that stands out from that season, but a series of events that led to the worst season since 1991-92.
The thing is, there was no reason to think that the season would be a struggle in the spring of 2008 after the Crusaders knocked off Washington in the first round of the CBI. Losing Loyd and Shawn Huff would be a problem, but Homer Drew had plenty of underclassmen ready to become the next stars of the program.
Then news came that Bryan Bouchie was transferring from the program. Sources close to the team weren't surprised to learn that Bouchie was unhappy at Valparaiso. Bouchie never took to his teammates and when the Crusaders returned from the CBI loss to Houston, Bouchie stopped socializing with the program.
Maturity aside, Bouchie was a superb post player that would've projected to have a strong career in the guard-orientated Horizon League.
Instead of a strong interior attack of Bouchie and Urule Igbavboa starting alongside Brandon McPherson, Jake Diebler and Samuel Haanpaa, the Crusaders were now going to have to rely on an untested underclassmen in the starting lineup.
Then the bomb dropped. Haanpaa, Valparaiso's best scoring threat, left school for a professional career during the first week of August. Haanpaa wasn't quite a Ryan Broekhoff, but he was one of the best shooters to ever wear the uniform, once knocking down 10 3-pointers in one game.
Suddenly two of Valparaiso's best players were off the roster and Drew would have to rely on his inexperienced freshmen. Complicating matters was that Brandon McPherson was dealing with a nagging knee injury that never quite healed over the offseason. With the exception of a few games, including an inspiring performance against Butler while playing on one leg, McPherson was sidelined for the season.
"We felt with those three (Bouchie, Haanpaa, McPherson) back, we have the chance to win the conference," Drew said. "All of these things happened too late for us to replenish ourselves."
The Crusaders replenished alright, but Cameron Witt and De'Andre Haskins weren't nearly at the same level as Bouchie and Haanpaa. Erik Buggs and Logan Jones offered promise as freshmen guards, but neither had McPherson's talent or experience.
Injuries took their toll as the season went on, culminating in an embarrassing 71-56 loss at Loyola that saw just six scholarship players suit up. Andrew Ferry's career with the Crusaders essentially came to an end that night when the walkon played just one minute despite being the best shooter on the team. Ferry later transferred to Cornell where he shined as a 3-point specialist.
The only bright spot in the entire season came when Drew won his 600th game against the Ramblers on Feb. 13.
Players bolted as soon as the season came to a close. Benjamin Fumey signed a pro contract in Germany while Haskins, Jones and the recently-signed Beas Hamga all were out the door before summer began.
Jones made the paper more for his off-court arrest for pot when he uttered the infamous line to the arresting officer..."Be cool, I don't want to lose my scholarship." Jones returned from a suspension at Purdue and turned the ball over twice and committed a foul in three possessions. He lost his scholarship.
So the 2008-09 season was a comedy of errors, but what could have been? Bouchie undoubtedly would've been a star at Valparaiso had he kept his head screwed on straight. (He was arrested within days of returning to Evansville) Bouchie would've only improved battling against Cory Johnson every day in practice. Except...what if Bouchie's scholarship was the one that Johnson took? Who would've had the better Valparaiso career?
McPherson staying healthy is paramount when discussing any success the 2008-09 team might have had. Without the senior guard, the Crusaders were forced to rely on Buggs just as the 2004-05 team was forced to rely on Loyd. That helped the Crusaders down the road when it comes to Buggs and his maturity, but it certainly didn't help the 9-22 squad.
The 2008-09 debacle led to a complete turnover of the roster the following year with transfers Johnson and Brandon Wood taking over along with freshmen Ryan Broekhoff, Matt Kenney and Tommy Kurth. Perhaps a stronger year in 08-09 would've led Drew to be cautious when bringing along the younger players instead of hitting the reset button. The playing time that Broekhoff and Kenney earned as freshmen only served to help the Crusaders get back to the NCAA tournament in 2013.
As far as Drew's memory of the year goes, he thinks about the losing season often, and always with a smile on his face.
"I felt as a coach, if you take away the record, it was a team that played hard," Drew said. "We weren't as skilled or talented as other teams, but we coached as well as we ever coached. A year like that helps you appreciate the good years more. It makes you appreciate the work you have to do. You learn more in a losing season than in a winning season. We learned a lot that season."