Among Missouri Valley Conference teams, only Valparaiso, Bradley, Drake and Northern Iowa can put a 7-footer under the rim to wait for opponents. Aside from Valparaiso, none have two.
Jaume Sorolla and Derrik Smits bring elite size to the Crusaders' frontcourt, but that didn't create a true intimidation factor last year: Valparaiso blocked 8.9 percent of opponents' two-point shots, according to KenPom.com, which ranked 188th among 351 Division I teams.
Sorolla, Smits and Mileek McMillan hope to change that this season. If Valparaiso's three big men can turn talent into top-tier MVC production, the Crusaders should take a major step forward from last year's 15-17 season. Here's a look at Valparaiso's three-man center rotation for 2018-19.
Weight: 220 pounds
Last season: 3.2 points per game, 1.4 rebounds, 10.6 minutes
McMillan started at center against Indianapolis in Thursday's exhibition game, but he said he still considers himself a power forward after starting Valparaiso's last 18 games there last season. The Merrillville native brings just about all of the tools a coach could hope for in a power forward with his size, athleticism and shooting touch. He shot 36.4 percent from 3 in 2017-18.
To make good on his potential, McMillan needs to slow down and make smarter decisions. According to KenPom.com, McMillan led all returning Crusaders by turning the ball over on 32.7 percent of the possessions he finished last season, and he committed 7.6 fouls per 40 minutes. If McMillan can stay on the floor and minimize mistakes, he could be one of the MVC’s most improved players. McMillan’s offseason dedication in the weight room should help his cause.
“I’ve definitely hit the weight room this offseason and toned my body up,” McMillan said. “But as far as bulking up, I feel like I’ve gotten stronger, but I wasn’t really focused on just bulking up just because I’m gonna play the 5. I still want to use my quickness. I am a 4, so I’ll still use my quickness on other 5’s to make me a mismatch problem.”
Class: Redshirt junior
Weight: 240 pounds
Last season: 7.5 points per game, 3.6 rebounds, 17.8 minutes
Smits towers over many opposing MVC centers, but that hasn’t translated into dominant rebounding and shot-blocking. Will this be the year? That partly will depend on whether Smits continues to cut his fouls. The big man improved from 7.1 fouls committed per 40 minutes as a freshman to 5.3 last season, but even that second number is high.
Smits converted 71.6 percent of shots he took at the rim last season, according to Hoop-Math.com, which ranked seventh in the MVC. With Valparaiso’s potentially improved spacing, Smits should have more room to do what he does best — catch and finish. Like McMillan, Smits feels another year of strength training will help him, particularly on the defensive end.
“To get an extra year with our strength coach helps us a lot, because last year I might not have been able to get somewhere quick enough, but I knew I should be there,” Smits said. “This year it’s a little easier, and I’m strong enough to be able to stand my ground more than last year.”
Weight: 240 pounds
Last season: 4.9 points per game, 3.4 rebounds, 16.3 minutes
The big Spaniard scored efficiently last season but battled turnovers and foul trouble — sensing a theme? Sorolla led the team in blocks with 1.1 per game despite a relatively light minutes load, and his career 73.5 percent free-throw shooting adds extra offensive value.
Sorolla’s defensive rebounding could also use improvement, as his defensive rebounding rate ranked only sixth among Valparaiso's rotation players last year, according to KenPom.com. Although Sorolla should provide an efficient option on offense and deter opponents at the rim when he's on the court, he’s currently battling an ankle injury that will likely keep him out until mid-November. Once he returns, he could step in as Valparaiso's starter at center.