Valparaiso begins its first season in the Missouri Valley Conference tonight with more questions than answers.
Will Tevonn Walker be able to return to full strength after missing four games due to mono? Has Joe Burton played his last basketball game in a Valparaiso uniform, and if so, who replaces his production? Did any of the Crusaders find a few more made 3-pointers and a few less turnovers under the Christmas tree earlier this week?
The Crusaders will take their first step toward answering those questions when Valley begins tonight at Indiana State in the first of 18 conference games that will culminate with Arch Madness in St. Louis in just over two months.
“There’s been an excitement in this group about the process and continuing to get better,” Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said. The emphasis has really been on remaining true to who we are. If you look at our defensive numbers, our rebounding, we’ve been consistently pretty good at it. There’s been an emphasis on taking care of the ball. If we defend, rebound and limit our turnovers, we’ll be in every single game we play.”
Getting Walker back into the lineup will be a good move in that direction as the senior guard was leading the team with 16.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 20 steals before missing the last four games with illness. Walker was back at practice this week and is expected to play against the Sycamores. Walker had 15 points, four rebounds and two steals in last season’s 89-71 win over Indiana State.
“Tevonn’s presence back with the team has been great,” Lottich said. “We’re expecting him to play a normal workload.”
Burton’s situation is a little more unclear. The coaching staff isn’t allowed to comment on academic matters and it remains unclear if Burton will return to school for the second semester and if he’s allowed to have any affiliation with the basketball team. Burton is still listed as a member of the program on the school’s website.
With Burton out, Markus Golder (9.1 ppg) is expected to have a bigger role, but he’ll hardly be the only player that Lottich will count on going forward.
“When someone goes down there are opportunities for other players to step up,” Lottich said. “Markus will have some more opportunities, Micah (Bradford) will have some more opportunities and Max (Joseph) will have more.”
Lottich has long said that “rebounding and defense always travel,” but the Crusaders will need to take care of the basketball and, perhaps more importantly, knock down some 3-pointers, if they are to be successful in the Valley. Valparaiso shot just 12.5 percent (4-32) from the 3-point line in the non-conference finale against UC-Riverside. Golder, Bradford and Bakari Evelyn combined to shoot just 1-24 in the 73-60 loss on Dec. 20.
“They were good shots that they missed,” Lottich said. “We lost our confidence with shooting. We started off bad and it carried over with it.”
The Crusaders open on the road against the Sycamores and then will host preseason favorite Missouri State on New Year’s Eve. Valparaiso beat both schools next year and has some familiarity with the programs. The Crusaders will then travel to Bradley on Jan. 3. The two teams haven’t met on the hardwood since Dec. 17, 1983.
“My expectation is to get better every single day,” Lottich said. “As individuals and as a team, there is a desire to do that. It won’t be a finished product overnight, but we’ll continue to get better.”
RedHawks aim to add to streak: The Indiana Northwest men’s basketball team will aim to add to its six-game winning streak when the RedHawks take on Grace Bible College tonight in Wyoming, Michigan.
IUN started its six-game winning streak on Nov. 25 with an overtime win at home over Holy Cross. The highlight of the streak came on Dec. 14 when the RedHawks got a last defensive stop to knock off Trinity Christian 81-79. A pair of wins over IU-Kokomo and Governors State just before Christmas extended the streak to six games, the longest streak the program has had dating back to the 2007-08 season when IUN won seven straight games.