VALPARAISO — The messages started rolling into coach Matt Lottich's email account shortly after Valparaiso's win over Carleton this month.
Valparaiso went 4-0 on its preseason tour of Canada, including an 83-80 overtime win over the Ravens, Canada's top college program. When Daniel Sackey's one-legged heave beat the buzzer to earn the Crusaders a win, the team celebrated like it was any other game-winner.
It certainly had a similar effect to one.
“Surprisingly, it has helped a lot,” Lottich said. "I've actually gotten random emails from people like, 'Hey, what's up with Valpo?'"
Carleton has beaten high-major opponents such as Cincinnati, Alabama, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt over the last few years and rarely loses to NCAA competition during the summer.
Lottich said before the tour that Valparaiso's desire to continue recruiting Canada was a reason the program chose to travel there. The Crusaders already have a pair of Canadians in Sackey and freshman forward Ben Krikke.
Sackey, a Winnipeg native, had one of the standout overall performances on the trip. The sophomore point guard averaged 15 points and three assists per game to go with 48.9 percent shooting from the field.
A significant portion of Sackey's family made the trip to support the team, including his parents — David and Mercy — and sister Tina. As soon as Sackey knocked down the shot to beat Carleton, he turned and saw Mercy jumping around behind Valparaiso's bench before he ran across half court to celebrate.
“I haven't hit a game-winner like that in a long, long time,” Sackey said. “Just the fact that I could do it at home against the powerhouse of Canada, it was like a storybook ending if you want to say that.”
Sackey said he got in the gym with Lottich shortly after last season ended to improve his shooting form by simplifying his mechanics and making sure his shooting doesn't flair out. He shot just 5 for 20 from 3-point range but displayed a smoother release.
Sophomore guard Javon Freeman-Liberty was the best player on the tour, but junior big man Mileek McMillan and freshman forward Donovan Clay also stood out.
You have free articles remaining.
Clay put up an 18-point, five-rebound, four-steal effort in the final game against University of Quebec in Montreal, showing off his athleticism.
McMillan posted 8.7 points and six rebounds per game in the first three games before playing just nine minutes in the final game. The Merrillville graduate has struggled with foul trouble over his first two seasons and fouled out against McGill to tip off the tour before staying more disciplined the rest of the trip.
“Mileek has definitely taken a huge step since last year, as well,” Sackey said. “He has worked his butt off. … I'm so proud of him, how far he has come and how far he's gonna go, because this is just the beginning.”
With centers Derrik Smits and Jaume Sorolla both having transferred, McMillan will have to play major minutes at center this season. Redshirt senior forward Ryan Fazekas, Valparaiso's leading returning scorer with 11.8 points per game last year, did not play on the tour due to a virus.
Nonetheless, the Crusaders scored no fewer than 81 points in each game — granted, they played with FIBA rules that included a 24-second shot clock. Even without Fazekas' 43.2 percent shooting from 3, Valparaiso knocked down 35.5 percent of its shots, compared to last year's 31.6 percent mark.
A 77-59 loss to Carleton in 2015 didn't stop the Crusaders from winning 30 games that next season, so it's unclear what the exhibition results mean. But Valparaiso saw some positive signs.
“Do we have a lot to work on? Yes,” Lottich said. “Did we make a lot of newcomer mistakes? Absolutely. But the group really enjoys each other and they play really, really hard.”
Crusaders announce staff changes
Valparaiso announced that assistant coach Todd Townsend has resigned due to family reasons.
Director of Basketball Operations Matt Bowen has been promoted to fill Townsend's bench spot. In turn, Jason Karys will take Bowen's previous role after serving as a graduate assistant, and former manager Peter Funk was named a graduate assistant.
Townsend's family lives in Milwaukee. Lottich said Townsend will not coach next season.
"Without delving too much into his personal life, he has just had a lot going on," Lottich said. "Obviously, we have a personal relationship, so it's hard to see him go — and boy was he fantastic when he was here."