With seven additions from across the globe, Valparaiso has rarely been harder to project in recent years.
Some of that mystery will dissipate starting Saturday, as the Crusaders embark on their preseason tour of Canada.
The NCAA allows programs to take one preseason trip to a foreign country every four years, and the Crusaders will visit Montreal and Ottawa until Wednesday to take on Canadian universities McGill, Concordia, Carleton and the University of Quebec in Montreal.
The games, played under FIBA rules, will give Valparaiso’s coaching staff extra time and evidence to evaluate different lineup combinations and fits.
“We are gonna try to see who plays well together, but we have some sort of an idea of that,” coach Matt Lottich said. “I think maybe we'll try to avoid four freshmen on the floor at the same time, but who knows? … There'll be some experimentation, but for the most part everyone's gonna play and contribute.”
Last season’s deluge of injuries forced the Crusaders to run out unorthodox lineups at times, with 6-foot-3 guard Javon Freeman-Liberty playing spot minutes at power forward and 6-foot-5 forward John Kiser chipping in at center. So while the trip could help crystallize Valpo’s rotation, plenty of uncertainty will remain.
Still, the Crusaders think it can give them an advantage as they prepare for Lottich’s fourth season in charge. Freshman point guard Sigurd Lorange said it will help to have weaknesses exposed early, when a full fall of preseason practices remains to figure out solutions.
That even applies for Valparaiso’s returning players. Lottich said he wants to experiment with Freeman-Liberty at point guard, and junior big man Mileek McMillan will get more minutes at center after primarily playing power forward over his first two seasons.
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Even if Freeman-Liberty and McMillan ideally might be more suited to play other positions, perhaps the wing-heavy roster will necessitate adjustments. Lottich said the Crusaders have spent their pre-trip practices installing specific defensive schemes and teaching players more general offensive concepts, but they haven’t been tested by opponents who are unfamiliar with their strategy and personnel.
“Obviously we have a lot to work on, because we are a new team,” redshirt junior forward Ryan Fazekas said. “But being able to play this early gives us a lot of opportunity to figure out, 'Alright, what are we really lacking? Where can we improve? Where do guys fit best?'”
The Crusaders will also volunteer in the community and meet up with Canadian alums Tevon Walker and Max Joseph. Kiser said he thinks the current team is already tighter than past iterations, but Lorange, for instance, only arrived on campus on July 25.
Lottich said the trip will allow for plenty of off-court quality time among teammates, and it will give the four incoming freshmen a taste of what NCAA Division I basketball is like. Aside from the competition — in the last two summers, Carleton has defeated Cincinnati, Ole Miss, Alabama and Vanderbilt — it’s the first college trip for the group.
“It's definitely gonna give us a college experience, especially going so far away to Canada to see what everything is like,” freshman forward Donovan Clay said. “I've never been to Canada, so for me I can't wait to do that. I just want to see how I can play with the team and how we can combine our different play styles with each other.”
Saturday’s game against McGill at 2 p.m. will be streamed live on Valparaiso’s athletics website, while a spokesman told The Times that the remaining games are not expected to have live video, audio or stats.
While fans will get their first look at a new basketball product, Lottich said the overall group experience is more important than game action after last year’s turbulent 15-18 season.
“We want our guys to fight for one another,” Lottich said. “Right now, we have made monumental strides in that direction. We just want to continue with that. Obviously, we want to execute well. But I don't need a finished product in August.”