VALPARAISO | Saturday’s ESPN BracketBuster contest against Eastern Kentucky doesn’t mean anything to Valparaiso’s postseason chances, but don’t tell the players that the game doesn’t matter.
For a trio of former Crusaders, some of their fondest memories at Valparaiso are related to the annual mid-major non-conference showcase that will be discontinued after this season.
Howard Little played in two nationally-televised BracketBuster games, but the game that stands out the most to the 2011 graduate was during his sophomore year when the Crusaders (7-20 at the time) upset Akron (17-9) 74-66 on Feb. 21, 2009. Little led six players in double figures with 17 points as Valparaiso rallied from an 18-point deficit.
“We pulled a big upset in that one. Everyone knew about Akron and even though we had a losing record, it didn’t matter,” Little said. “Every game is important, whether you’re playing a conference or non-conference game. It’s a chance for the school to come together. Coach (Homer Drew) always told us to play every game like it was our last.”
Valparaiso’s first nationally-televised BracketBuster game came a year earlier when then-seniors Shawn Huff and Jarryd Loyd willed the Crusaders to a 99-94 double overtime win over Miami (Ohio) on Feb. 23, 2008. Loyd scored Valparaiso’s final seven points in the second overtime and Huff added 26 of his game-high 32 points after halftime.
“I definitely remember that game and it was one of my best at Valpo,” Huff said. “My mother and brother were visiting me at the time and I always played well when they were there. I just felt like I couldn’t miss that game. We were so tired after the game because of the tempo, but it was such a satisfying win.”
Valparaiso’s highest profile BracketBuster game was two years ago when Dick Vitale came to the ARC to call the game with at-large candidate Missouri State on Feb. 19, 2011. The Crusaders led by double digits for much of the 80-67 victory, but 2011 graduate Cory Johnson remembers an event prior to the opening tip more than the game itself.
“The BracketBuster game is such a great memory,” Johnson said. “I will never forget the one-on-one game I got to play with Dick Vitale during warm-ups.”
Much like this season, the 2010-11 Crusaders were on the cusp of clinching the Horizon League title before having to breakaway to play a non-conference game. The Crusaders ended up losing their next two games and failed to win the regular-season championship. Valparaiso is in nearly the same situation this season and can clinch the title with a win over Youngstown State next Tuesday, but first must play the Colonels (22-6, 11-3) on Saturday afternoon.
“To say that the BracketBuster game hurt our chances to clinch the title just isn’t fair,” Johnson said. “The beauty of basketball is you never really know what will happen. If things went differently, we might be saying that the BracketBuster helped our chances of winning the conference.”