VALPARAISO | Winning close games was a staple of Bryce Drew’s first year on the bench as the Valparaiso men’s basketball head coach.
The Crusaders went 10-2 last season in games decided by six points or less en route to winning a Horizon League regular-season championship. Valparaiso hasn’t been as fortunate this season, losing two out of three games decided by the same margin, including Monday’s 70-68 loss to Oakland.
If the Crusaders are going to compete for another league championship this season, Drew knows they’ll have to learn how to finish games again.
“We went through the (Oakland) game, and we dissected the last five minutes,” Drew said. “We were successful at winning close games last year. We could’ve easily gone 5-5 in those games, and then we don’t have all the expectations that we have this season.”
The Crusaders (7-4) came into the year as the runaway Horizon League favorites and had a schedule that set up for a possible NCAA at-large bid. Valparaiso will now have to win the Horizon League tournament to get in the Big Dance and Illinois-Chicago is the trendy pick to win the conference after a 9-2 start. Drew had a heart-to-heart meeting with his team Tuesday where he discussed the sky-high expectations for the senior-laden team.
“Our expectations are high, no question, but the reality is we’ve got new guys in here, and we lost our third- and fourth-leading scorers,” Drew said. “The transfers we brought in don’t have a lot on their college resumes. Those expectations are coming off a high school resume.”
Lavonte Dority has looked sharp in his first two games with the Crusaders, averaging 17 points, including 14 points in 31 minutes against the Grizzlies on Saturday. Despite the impressive start from the South Florida transfer, Drew believes the Crusaders are still learning how to play with all of their parts.
“Last year we had a similar situation with Ben Boggs,” Drew said. “He became eligible, and we lost two of our first three games. It takes time to get a rhythm going when you add new pieces.”
One of those two losses came against IUPUI. The Jaguars come to the Athletics-Recreation Center tonight after knocking off Valparaiso 97-88 last season in a game where the Crusaders recovered from a 17-point halftime deficit to tie the game, only to fall behind by double digits again for much of the second half.
Drew said on Wednesday that there could be some changes in the starting lineup, but one place there wouldn’t be changes would be in his end-of-game philosophy. The Crusaders spent much of the final five minutes of the Oakland game slowing down the ball on offense and running time off the clock.
“We looked at the tape, and if I could go back, I’d do the same thing,” Drew said. “It’s something that we’ve done. We didn’t slow it down out of transition, just off the set plays. If we make one more basket, it’s probably a different outcome, and then we’re talking about something different.”