VALPARAISO | Though it feels like the entire Valparaiso men’s basketball team graduated after last season, there are still a handful of players who remain from the program’s first NCAA tournament team since 2004.
The Crusaders will begin their quest to return to the Big Dance this evening as they host Hillsdale in the exhibition opener at the Athletics-Recreation Center. Valparaiso beat the Chargers 73-71 in Bryce Drew’s first game as coach in 2011.
All nine players that took the court against Hillsdale two years ago are no longer with the program, but that doesn’t mean the Crusaders won’t have some experience as well as high expectations.
“We talk about it all the time,” Valparaiso’s Jordan Coleman said. “(The returning players) were an important part of last season’s team, as well. We do have a chip on our shoulder this year. Not only do we want to get back to the tournament, but we want to go deeper than we did last year.”
Coleman is expected to be in the starting lineup tonight as well as his other three senior teammates, including Alabama transfer Moussa Gueye. The seven-foot big man will be making his long awaited Valparaiso debut after he gave the Crusaders a verbal commitment while at Lake Land (Ill.) College in 2009.
“My heart is here at Valparaiso,” Gueye said. “I’m excited to be going out there. I’m just looking to help lead these younger guys. We have a talented young team and we (seniors) need to set the tone for the younger guys.”
One of the freshmen newcomers will likely be in the starting lineup, but Drew will be looking at all 11 players against Hillsdale, including Andrean product Nick Davidson and Rice transfer David Chadwick.
“The seniors have the experience so they’ve earned the right to get first crack at it and then we’ll go from there,” Drew said. “This game will be a little different as we’ll play all 11. Once the season starts, we probably won’t go that deep in the rotation.”
While Coleman is one of four seniors on the roster, the group only has three combined years of playing experience for the Crusaders. Coleman, Lavonte Dority and Bobby Capobianco all joined the team as active players last season. Capobianco and Vashil Fernandez are the only players who were with the program two seasons ago.
“We have to play hard and if we make mistakes, we need to make aggressive mistakes,” Coleman said. “We’ve got a lot of new faces and we’re telling the new guys just to be comfortable.”