VALPARAISO | While differences between last season’s Valparaiso men’s basketball team to this season's squad are endless, the biggest has shown up in the last five minutes of games.
This season’s youthful Crusaders simply don’t have the experience closing out games at the collegiate level that last season’s weathered team had after years of playing together.
Last season’s team illustrated an ability to close out games best when its players held Wright State scoreless for nearly five and a half minutes last in the 2013 Horizon League championship game. The Crusaders turned a six-point deficit with 5:37 remaining into a 10-point lead with 15 seconds remaining.
The Raiders (9-8, 1-1) return to the Athletics-Recreation Center tonight for a nationally-televised game against a completely different cast of characters that have struggled to play their best basketball when it matters most.
“We’re a young team and we need to have the ability to get defensive stops,” Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew said. “We’re in these games; we’re playing teams close, but we need to figure out a way to get defensive stops late in the game.”
Defense is what pushed the Raiders to an unexpected third-place finish last season and getting stops is proving to be their calling card again this season.
Wright State leads the Horizon League by giving up just 62.5 points per game. The Raiders are also scoring a conference-low 69.1 points per game. By returning virtually everyone from last season’s roster as well as adding Butler transfer Chrishawn Hopkins, the Raiders better resemble Valparaiso’s recent championship teams than any other team in the conference when it comes to experience level.
“When you have a veteran team, you can give them more toward the end of games and they’ll be able to do more,” Drew said. “When you have a young team, they’re still thinking everything out. You need to keep things simpler for them, especially in the crunch-time situations.”
While Valparaiso has lost eight games this season, the four that stand out most to the coaching staff were against Ohio, Mercer, St. Louis and Oakland. In each of those, the Crusaders (9-8, 1-1) were tied with less than a minute remaining and failed to close out the game. The season-opening victory against Murray State is the only time this season the Crusaders have closed out a single-possession game in the final minute of play.
“It’s something that we’re working on every day and something that we will get better at,” Drew said. “We made the plays in the Murray State game and we haven’t made the plays or gotten the stops in the other games. Our opponents have made the plays. We’ve watched a lot of film and we continue to talk about different situations.”