A year ago Valparaiso was a 13-seed in the NCAA tournament, and came up one possession short of upsetting 4-seed Maryland. Despite the tough loss, Valpo fans had to be excited because the Crusaders were returning all five starters. This season over 83% of the minutes went to returning players, which was the 2nd most of 351 Division I teams.
The combination of talent and experience let to the inevitable comparisons to the 1998 team which reached the Sweet 16 (beating Florida State in the process).
But it wasn't to be. Valpo (27-6) was stunned in OT in the Horizon League tournament, and then watched in disappointment on Selection Sunday as all four brackets were revealed.
Their reward was to be a 1-seed in the NIT, where they dispatched Texas Southern in the opening round.
Now the Noles travel to Indiana to be their 2nd round opponent.
The Crusaders are led by 6-9 junior Alec Peters, who was named All League 1st Team in the Horizon. He's a serious matchup issue as he takes half his shots from beyond the arc and makes 45%. He averages 18.3 points per game, and is coming off a 28-point, seven rebound performance in the opening round.
He leads an offense which can shoot the three (37% as a team), but isn't great on 2s. The place where they really excel is on the glass. The Crusaders are 27th nationally in offensive rebounding.
But due to their difficulties scoring inside and their propensity to turn the ball over, the Crusaders offense ranked just 107th nationally in efficiency.
Their defense is another story.
Valparaiso spent most of the year with a top-10 defense, but have recently slipped a bit and now rank 16th nationally in efficiency. Only two ACC teams have a better defense.
The defense starts with 6-10 senior Vashil Fernandez, who is No. 1 nationally in blocked shots, rejecting over 12% of opponent 2s. Not surprising, Fernandez was named the Defensive Player of the Year in the Horizon League. He's a grown man, and plays like one. The 24-year-old grew up one of 15 kids in Jamaica, and didn't start playing basketball until he was 17. He's an exceptional athlete who is tough to beat down the floor, and his arms go on forever.
Valpo is 6th nationally in defensive 2-pt%, and they completely dominate the glass (9th).
Their one weakness is that they're foul prone, and FSU will have to attack and try to get Fernandez and others into foul trouble. Whistle happy refs are my pet peeve, but this is a game where that style would likely benefit Florida State.
The game tips Thursday at 7 PM and will be broadcast on ESPNews.