VALPARAISO | Linked together at the top of the Horizon League for the last two years, Valparaiso and Detroit entered this season as afterthoughts in the race to win the conference title.
The once bitter rivals enter tonight’s nationally-televised contest seemingly headed in different directions as the Crusaders are positioned to make a run toward the top of the league, while the Titans have lost six of their last eight games.
A Valparaiso victory would likely guarantee the Crusaders a higher finish than their sixth-place preseason projection, while a Detroit loss would continue to send the Titans spiraling toward the bottom of the standings.
“It’s nice to have those preseason projections for the media to have something to talk about, but we never paid any attention as to where we were supposed to finish,” Valparaiso senior Bobby Capobianco said. “We set our own goals, and we entered this season with the idea and belief that we could continue to compete at the top of the league.”
Capobianco is one of the few holdovers from last season’s team, but the senior played just 23 minutes in two games against the Titans. Lavonte Dority, a virtual all-conference selection lock this season, played just 42 minutes in two games and scored a combined 13 points against Detroit. Neither Jordan Coleman nor Vashil Fernandez played against Detroit at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
With so few returnees from last season’s team as well as a plethora of freshmen, just how have the Crusaders been able to keep pace in the Horizon League?
“I think one thing that helped us was that we did have all these scholarships, and we recruited guys that knew they could come here and get some immediate playing time,” Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew said. “I think that made us very attractive. Then we had some returning guys who really got started in the summer. They knew there would be an opportunity here, and they put the work in to keep us going.”
It’s not that the Titans haven’t had the players this season. It’s that their losses were unexpected and thus harder to plan for. Nick Minnerath and Doug Anderson were never going to be members of the 2013-14 squad, but Ray McCallum Jr. and Jason Calliste were expected to form the best backcourt in the Horizon League instead of leaving for the NBA and Oregon, respectively. Juwan Howard Jr. has elevated his game considerably, averaging 17.8 points after scoring under eight points per game last season. Michigan transfer Carlton Brundidge has struggled with his offense this season and is shooting 36 percent from the floor.
While the Crusaders (14-10, 6-3) have seemingly found a groove behind the hot hand of Dority, Capobianco is quick to point out that it took a lot of work to get to this point and that Valparaiso could easily be on the other side of the standings with Detroit.
“I think we’ve done a really good job embracing each other as a team,” Capobianco said. “We’re a cohesive unit now. Sure, we’ve got a lot of new guys, but we don’t even view them as freshmen. We’re all a cog, all part of this unit we have. It’s taken a little while for us to figure it all out, but the beauty is that basketball is a long season, and you’ve got that time to put it all together.”