VALPARAISO — There's an energy and lightness around the ARC for Valparaiso's offseason practices.
After a 15-18 season punctuated by a disappointing 4-12 finish, countless injuries and a whopping six players in the transfer portal, the Crusaders say they're healthy and happy. Smiles and optimism have replaced frustration after losses.
All 12 scholarship players are on campus and preparing for Valpo's trip to Canada from Aug. 10-14. While Ryan Fazekas and John Kiser continue to take it slow after late-season injuries, coach Matt Lottich said he expects everyone to play on the trip to Montreal and Quebec City.
Fazekas opted not to have the offseason ankle surgery he said he would consider in February, and he has adjusted to playing with a brace. The redshirt senior forward said his previously broken thumb is 100 percent, and he has been on the court this summer.
"I'm regaining confidence in my ankle with all the treatment I've been doing," Fazekas said. "Honestly, I haven't even thought about it. ... It's nothing that I can't play on."
Kiser, on the other hand, went in for surgery on his ankle after spraining it during Missouri Valley Conference play. The senior forward missed Valparaiso’s home loss to Drake on Jan. 26 but came back to play in every game after.
After eight weeks of recovery, Kiser started working out again about a month ago. He says he’s ready to break out his famous face mask and return to competitive action with his new teammates.
“It’s more of a togetherness this year than in the past few years, I feel like,” Kiser said.
Four freshmen adjusting
Valparaiso’ four freshmen are finally all on campus, as Norwegian point guard Sigurd Lorange arrived July 25 after completing his national team commitments.
Donovan Clay perhaps has drawn the most attention early. The forward from Alton, Illinois, took a developmental leap last year in high school after growing six-plus inches and has impressed Lottich with his athleticism.
“One thing that’s really funny is we buy subscriptions from guys that give you names on who to recruit and then you go watch these guys and make your own opinions,” Lottich said. “Donovan Clay finished around No. 2 to No. 4 in the class (in Illinois). At this time last year, he was listed I think No. 125 and he was listed at 6-foot-2. Now he’s close to 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9.”
Clay said he’s still working into top shape, but Lottich singled out the freshman’s strong performance against Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell last season as indicative of his talent. Between Clay and Javon Freeman-Liberty, Valparaiso could have two of the best wing athletes in the MVC — although shooting could be a question mark.
Lorange drew rave reviews from Lottich for his skill and basketball IQ. Listed at 5-foot-11 but standing closer to 5-foot-8, Lorange faces a new challenge as he transitions to the more athletic NCAA from Norway’s BLNO professional league.
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“The best way to describe Siggy in some ways is he’s got a plan,” Lottich said. “He looks like he has played at a very high level for a very long time.”
“He is a point guard, and he can shoot the living heck out of the ball. He doesn’t turn it over at a high rate. … There’s just this adjustment to America, but from a basketball standpoint, he has got his stuff together.”
Danish big man Emil Freese-Vilien has impressed teammates with his perimeter mobility on defense and his shooting. That skill set gives Valparaiso a polar-opposite look from departed 7-footers Derrik Smits and Jaume Sorolla, who played closer to the hoop.
When Freese-Vilien and junior Mileek McMillan are out of the game, Valparaiso will have multiple small-ball options that Lottich said make the game move faster. Kiser and 6-foot-7 freshman forward Ben Krikke should be options, and Clay said he may even see some time at center.
“(Freese-Vilien) is big, which is nice, but it’s impressive when we go through stuff and he’s guarding our smaller players out there and staying in front (of them),” Kiser said. “(Krikke and Clay) have stuff to learn, obviously, coming in, but they’ve picked up stuff like crazy. Stuff that when I came in, I didn’t pick up on as fast as they did.”
Point guard competition underway
With the departure of graduate student Deion Lavender, Valparaiso has three options at point guard: Lorange, sophomore Daniel Sackey and incoming junior transfer Zion Morgan.
Lottich called Sackey one of the MVC’s most dynamic athletes, while Lorange is likely the best shooter of the group. The 6-foot-5 Morgan’s combination of size and athleticism may make him the Crusader’s top defensive option.
While Lottich said he has an idea of what lineups he wants to look at — he said he likely won’t play the four freshmen together, for instance — he didn’t tip his hand on what the starting lineup will be in Canada.
“It’ll be different every game, I can promise you that,” Lottich said. “We’ve got to mix in our veterans with our new guys, but the main objective is that we’re all headed in the same direction.”
Freeman-Liberty could be a wild card at the position depending on how he plays in Canada. Lottich said he’ll try the MVC All-Defensive Team selection at point guard rather than his typical spot on the wing.
Sackey started 16 games last season, while Morgan adds extra experience from his time at UNLV and Wabash Valley College.
“(Morgan)’s a team guy all day,” Kiser said. “Gonna be great energy out there, can play defense.”