Valparaiso 75, UIC 47
Vashil Fernandez set the tone for the 2016 Horizon League season early on Saturday afternoon as the Valparaiso fifth-year senior recorded blocks on the first two defensive possessions of the game. The Crusaders may not have been especially crisp on offense, but the defending conference champions made their hay on the defensive side of the floor like they have all season.
What it means: Valparaiso extended its ARC winning streak to 20 games, tying the program record set from 2001-03. The Crusaders haven't lost at home since last season's 63-46 loss to New Mexico on Dec. 6. Valparaiso hasn't lost a Horizon League game at home since the regular-season finale against Cleveland State in 2014, a stretch of 12 games including three conference tournament contests.
One reason to be excited: Vashil Fernandez looked like himself again. After a non-conference stretch where he looked lost at times and disinterested at others, Fernandez was an absolute force on Saturday. Valparaiso head coach Bryce Drew has said throughout much of the early season that Fernandez played very little over the summer and that he expected Fernandez to come around sooner or later. The time appears to be now as Fernandez had a season-high 13 rebounds to go along with six blocks.
One reason to panic: Tevonn Walker scored in double figures in seven of his last eight games coming in to Saturday's game, so it's not like he's been struggling offensively. That said, to see Walker shoot just 1-9 from the floor was a frightening statistic for the Valparaiso faithful. The sophomore guard struggled in the first half against Belmont as well before recovering from flu-like symptoms to score 13 points. Walker will be key during Friday night's game against Oakland. Another 1-9 performance will likely lead to loss for the Crusaders. (It should be noted that Walker had five assists against the Flames. He still found ways to be productive.)
Lineup Switch: Bryce Drew made his first non-injury change to the starting lineup (disregarding the non-D1 games) on Saturday when he replaced the struggling Darien Walker with David Skara. Skara had nine points in 22 minutes of action while Walker played 25 minutes and added 11 points. Drew said on Friday that the staff reevaluated the team following the non-conference slate and it will be interesting to see if the new lineup stays in place.
On the Horizon: Conference play opened for all 10 Horizon League teams on Saturday with the home team holding serve in all of the early games. Oakland, Detroit and Green Bay looked every bit as strong as advertised. Detroit's Anton Wilson led all scorers with 34 points and Oakland's Kay Felder continued his hot streak with 20 points and 10 assists.
What's Next: The Crusaders get the entire week to prepare for Oakland in what should be a must-see-game at the O'Rena on Friday night. The game will be nationally televised on ESPN2 and will feature the top two teams in the Horizon League. Valparaiso and UIC both get Monday night off while the rest of the league will be in action.