VALPARAISO | So much for a hearty welcome back to the NCAA tournament for Valparaiso.
Nine years after the program's last appearance, the Crusaders were hoping a school-best 26-7 record would be good enough for at least a 13th seed.
The NCAA selection committee thought otherwise.
Valparaiso was given a 14th seed and will face No. 3 Michigan State (25-8) on Thursday in Auburn Hills, Mich. It's a fate similar to the school's first NCAA appearance in 1996, when the Crusaders were a 14 and had to face No. 3 Arizona in Tempe, Ariz.
Head coach Bryce Drew, a sophomore on that 1996 team, and Valpo players said all the right things after the draw was announced Sunday.
"Historically we've been shipped pretty far from home, so it's nice to be a close distance so our fans can go to the game," Drew said. "Any team you play is going to be a good team whether you're a 13 or a 14."
This will be Valpo's eighth NCAA appearance. As a 14 seed, the Crusaders lost to Arizona 90-51 in 1996 and fell 76-49 to Gonzaga at Seattle in 2004.
"Any seed is a good seed when you haven't been there in nine years," Valpo point guard Erik Buggs said. "We're taking whatever we can get.
"It was just a blessing to see our name come across the (TV) screen."
Valpo also was paired against Michigan State in the first round of the 2000 tournament, when the Spartans went on to win the national title. The Crusaders lost that game 65-38 in Cleveland.
Seniors Matt Kenney and Ryan Broekhoff were freshmen when Valpo last played Michigan State during the regular season. On Nov. 2, 2009, the Crusaders lost 90-60 in East Lansing.
This year's Spartans team features Lew Wallace graduate Branden Dawson (9.4 points per game, 6.4 rebounds per game), 2012 Indiana Mr. Basketball Gary Harris (12.9 ppg) and leading scorer Keith Appling (13.6 ppg). Valpo may encounter the most matchup problems with big men Derrick Nix (6-foot-9, 270 pounds) and Adreian Payne (6-10, 240).
"They're a tremendous team," Kenney said. "They played in arguably the best conference in the nation. It's going to be a very tough game, but we'll do our best to go out there and beat them.
"It's not going to be easy by any means."
Valpo's players may be a bit more familiar with the Spartans' personnel than other teams. Last year, they watched a lot of games when Valpo transfer Brandon Wood played for the Spartans as a graduate student.
"We're going in as the underdog and that's kind of how we like to play," Broekhoff said. "We'll play free and loose and see what happens.
"We're not just satisfied making the tournament."
While the current Crusaders have no NCAA tournament experience, they are one of the oldest teams in the nation. Six of their top eight players are seniors who have captured two consecutive regular-season Horizon championships.
"They've been on the road in front of big crowds before," Drew said. "Obviously it will be a dominant Michigan State crowd up there.
"They're well-balanced and similar to us. That's why they're a good team."