VALPARAISO | It’s fitting that Valparaiso men’s basketball will play its 100th Horizon League regular-season game against UIC on Tuesday night.
The Chicago campus is the closest conference school to Valparaiso at a distance of just 55 miles. The proximity of all Horizon League schools was a big reason Valparaiso athletic director Mark LaBarbera spearheaded the move to the conference in 2006.
Six years after the move, the Crusaders (17-6, 7-2) are in first place past the halfway point of the conference season for the third consecutive year.
“We were confident that we’d have success when we joined the Horizon League,” LaBarbera said. “It took a little bit of time in most sports, but kids always want to compete at the highest levels that they’re able to.”
UIC is a perfect example of the difference between the Horizon League and Valparaiso’s previous conference, the formerly named Mid-Continent Conference (now Summit League). The Flames (14-9, 5-5) have finished in the bottom half of the conference in each of the last four years, yet have played the Crusaders to single digits in seven of the nine meetings during that time. Valparaiso once beat former Mid-Con opponent Chicago State by double figures in eight straight meetings.
“It’s always a tough game when we play UIC, regardless if they’re up or down in the standings,” Valparaiso senior Ryan Broekhoff said. “Conference games are always a bit of a battle regardless of who the opponent is.”
The move to the Horizon League has ramped up fan support, due in large part to an alumni presence in each of the conference cities. Games at UIC and Milwaukee this year featured significant Valparaiso fan sections.
“All of the things that we wanted to accomplish with the move to the Horizon League have really borne out,” LaBarbera said. “Our fan base sees the games are more meaningful now. We have a rivalry developing with Detroit and that works because we have a lot of alumni in Detroit. Our Oral Roberts rivalry was nice, but we didn’t have any alums in Tulsa.”
Playing in the Horizon League has helped land more local talent at Valparaiso. Lavonte Dority and Alex Rossi are both Illinois natives and the 2013 recruiting class features six players from Illinois and Indiana. Games against Oral Roberts and Centenary didn’t mean nearly as much as games against UIC and Loyola.
“I take every game as serious, but a game against UIC, that one is a little more personal for me,” Dority said. “I grew up with a number of their guys, played against them. This is an important game for us and an important game for me.”