VALPARAISO | The last time Loyola visited the Athletics-Recreation Center, the Valparaiso men’s basketball team clinched the Horizon League regular season championship after a hard-fought 66-62 overtime victory over the Ramblers last February.
The Crusaders will begin defense of their conference title this evening as Loyola visits the ARC to tipoff Horizon League play.
Valparaiso was voted the clear preseason favorites to repeat this season while the Ramblers were picked to finish seventh. The Crusaders are the only Horizon League team with double digit wins in the non-conference, but Loyola surprisingly has the best record at 9-3.
“Loyola is really good this year with Cully Payne as their point guard,” Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew said. “He was a starter at Iowa his freshman year and then they’ve got Ben Averkamp who is one of the toughest matchups in the league. Our guys remember how well they played us last year.”
The Ramblers won just seven games last year and went 1-17 in conference play, but are led by newcomers Payne (4.5 apg) and Devon Turk (24 3-pointers), along with second team All-League selection Averkamp (15.7 ppg).
“We’ve seen a lot of them and know that they looked good against Michigan State and just beat DePaul,” Valparaiso junior forward Bobby Capobianco said. “It’s important for us to come out and set a tone for the conference. We need to come out and play our best.”
Capobianco will be one of five Valparaiso players making their conference debut against Loyola and the former Indiana transfer is anxious to get on the floor after being a bystander during last season’s conference title run.
“The biggest thing is that we need to be playing our best basketball during league play,” Capobianco said. “It’s a goal for everyone to try and repeat and we’re looking forward to getting that started.”
With Butler leaving for the Atlantic-10 this year, the conference scheduling is different for all nine of the Horizon League teams. Instead of having travel partners and playing two games with one night off in between, the schedule was radically changed due to Butler’s defection and, in some part, to ESPN’s requests.
The Crusaders will have an off-day on Thursday and then host Cleveland State in a nationally-televised game on Friday night, but it’s the only time this season that Valparaiso will host two conference games in three days.
“It’s definitely different and there have been changes with the travel and changes with the formation,” Drew said. “We’ve got a veteran group and I think they’ll be used to the challenges in conference.”