VALPARAISO -- Valparaiso’s Derrik Smits has never played better.
As the Crusaders’ erratic play continued in Tuesday’s 55-53 loss to High Point, Valparaiso still has one reliable stalwart in the front court with Smits. The big man led Valparaiso in scoring for the fourth straight game, dominating undersized High Point with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
“Derrik has improved immensely in a lot of areas,” head coach Matt Lottich said. “As a coach, I’m really proud of him.”
Smits said earlier in the season that he’s used to comparisons and jokes about his father — he said UNLV’s student section was the latest to poke fun at him. What he isn’t used to is the heaping plate of minutes he has eaten up to start the season. Smits is averaging 26.1 minutes per game compared with 17.8 last year and 12.8 in 2016-17 as he has learned to avoid foul trouble.
When Smits is on the court, he has shined as the more skilled option compared with fellow big man Jaume Sorolla, according to Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich. Smits buried Panthers defenders under the hoop for easy finishes on Tuesday, and he’s shooting a career-high 62 percent from the field.
Smits spent time with the Dutch national team the past three summers, including playing eight games in Italy this year organized by a friend of Rik Smits’, Peter van Noord. Rik Smits said he has always encouraged Derrik Smits to participate in international play, and Derrik Smits said the higher level of physicality has helped him develop as a paint presence. Years ago, that same experience helped Rik Smits develop from an inexperienced center at Marist to an NBA All-Star.
“I know personally, when I did that in college, it had the same effect on me,” Rik Smits said. “He has really put in the time, and I think it’s finally showing. The first couple of years have gone slow for him — we were hoping he would do better than he did, but finally this year it’s catching up.”
Smits carried Valparaiso’s offense in the first half, scoring 13 of the Crusaders’ 24 points, adding eight rebounds and physically overpowering the undersized Panthers. Valparaiso scored only one point in the four minutes Smits sat and shot 29 percent after knocking down 60 percent against UC Riverside on Sunday.
The Crusaders took a one-point lead into halftime thanks largely to clean defense, as Valparaiso only committed three fouls in the first period — High Point didn’t shoot its first free throw until nearly three minutes into the second half. Valparaiso strung together a 9-0 run shortly out of halftime, but High Point rallied to re-take the lead midway through the second half.
High Point led by seven with less than three minutes left, but Valparaiso rallied to tie the game at 53 on Ryan Fazekas’ three-pointer with 19 seconds remaining. But a Brandonn Kamga prayer with 0.8 seconds left sealed the win for the Panthers.*
* Editor's note: This story has been corrected from an earlier version.