Greetings Valparaiso Bleacher Report community. I’m Dave, a 2010 alumnus who could frequently be found in the front row of the student section at the ARC. I’m hoping that writing for Bleacher Report will help keep me in tune with the VU basketball team now that I can no longer attend every game. Now that my Valpo credentials have been established, let's get on with a preview of the 2010-11 Crusaders.
On paper, the argument can be made that this year’s squad has more talent than any since Coach Drew came out of retirement after Scott took the job at Baylor. This year’s Crusaders are going to win games in a different way than most people are used to…they have the potential to put a lot of points on the board.
Defending Horizon League scoring champ Brandon Wood will be joined in the backcourt by scoring machine Jay Harris out of Oswego East HS. The scorers will be joined by key players Cory Johnson in the post and three-point shooter Ryan Broekhoff. Another huge advantage for the team is that six of the seven players who played in all 32 games are returning.
The two big questions for this year are: Can the team finally beat Butler and can the team win Valpo’s first ever HL title?
Before looking at who is on the team, I want to touch on the player we lost—Brandon McPherson. The fifth-year senior was the only senior and his leadership was a major contributor to VU’s surprise 15-win season. He averaged nearly 12 PPG and led the team in APG with 3.2. His presence on the floor and in the locker room will be missed.
Also departing are forwards Chris Halvorsen and Milos Milosevic, who have both left the program. Neither were significant contributors last season, and their transfers are less than surprising. Best of luck to all of the former players as they move on from Valpo.
C—Hrvoje Vucic (Fr, Redshirt): the 7’1” center from Croatia redshirted last season. Valpo has had bad luck recently when it comes to centers. Injuries and bad play have plagued Mousa Mbaye and Callum MacLeod. However, IF Vucic can handle playing D-I basketball, Valpo benefits in a big way. Cory Johnson is freed up to move around the court more and benefits from matching up against the smaller and less physical 4s in the HL. The presence of a big man like Vucic will also be helpful in the non-conference portion of the schedule against teams like Kansas.
F—Cory Johnson (Sr): Johnson was the emotional leader of the team and a favorite of the student section. Cory led the team in rebounds (5.8 PG) and blocks (0.5 PG) while finishing second to Brandon Wood with 15.6 PPG. One of the most physical players I’ve seen at VU, Cory has absolutely no problem banging bodies in the post to get a bucket or rebound. He is also an underrated jump shooter, something that can be exploited easier if he plays the 4. Against the smaller teams we’ll run in to in HL play, Johnson will likely see a good amount of time at the 5.
G/F—Michael Rogers (Sr): Rogers was VU’s top recruit in the spring/summer of ’07. He showed a great deal of promise in his freshman year and was thought by some as more than capable of replacing then senior Shawn Huff. This didn’t materialize as Rogers' scoring never developed. However, he is the most capable man-on-man defender on the roster. He has been equally adept at guarding 4s and 5s like Matt Howard and Akron’s McKnight brothers, as he has been at defending guards and swingmen like Gordon Hayward. Lucky for Rogers and Valpo, he won’t have to score much for this team to win. Just stick him in the game and tell him to shut down the opponent’s most dangerous scoring threat.
G—Brandon Wood (Jr): The conference scoring champ will be looking to improve on his 17.7 PPG 2.3 APG from last season. One question worth asking is whether or not Wood can average over 20 PPG this year. If he can repeat his production from last season offensively and continue to improve his defense, he’s destined to another great season and should contend for a second consecutive HL scoring title. Wood and Johnson are the two players that should make the all conference first or second teams. Should either of them go down, this could become a long season.
G—Jay Harris (Fr): The freshman combo guard was Valpo’s prized recruit this offseason. As a senior, Harris averaged better than 27 PPG. Together, Wood and Harris will hopefully prove to by a dynamic offensive backcourt. VU’s depth at point guard is somewhat suspect with Erik Buggs missing last season due to injury. Harris can provide stability to the position and really help the rotation fall into place.
F/C—Cameron Witt (Jr): Witt came out of nowhere as a freshman to take Bryan Buchie’s place backing up Urule Igbavboa in the post. His physical play impressed early on and people expected continued improvement. This wasn’t the case. Though he still played physical basketball in the post, his lack of speed and poor footwork made him a liability on both sides of the ball. If freshman Kevin Van Wijk is as good as projected, Witt could see himself out of the rotation.
F—Kevin Van Wijk (So): The 21-year-old freshman out of the Netherlands has earned himself high praise from the local media. At 6’8” he has a game comparable to Cory Johnson and will likely take over the starting spot after Johnson graduates. It shouldn’t take much for him to jump Witt to take over as the No. 3 post player in the rotation.
F—Ryan Broekhoff (So): A more complete beta-version of Samuel Haanpaa. Like Sam, “Rowdy” shoots the lights out (36 percent from the three-point line), but he is also a better ball handler, can take the ball to the hole, and is a competent defender. Last season, the team’s midseason run was sparked primarily by his play and the play of Matt Kenney. When the length of the college season caught up with them and their level of play declined, the team began to struggle again. As a second year player, we need him to be able to make it through this year without being troubled by fatigue. The Aussie will likely be the first off the bench and could even supplant either Vucic or Rogers in the starting lineup depending on what lineup opponents will use.
F/G—Howard Little (Sr): Probably the best overall athlete on the team. Little has an ability to jump out of the gym (minus the missed dunk that cost us the Butler game several years ago…but I digress). He is a 7 PPG, 4 RPG, 1 APG player that can be a great asset as the senior leader of the second team. There is a chance he will start in place of Rogers in some games. He has a skill set that allows him to play the 2 in a big lineup and the 3 or 4 in a small one. I expect to see Rogers and him together on the floor when Coach Drew is looking to run.
G—Matt Kenney (So): Kenney began gaining playing time as the production of fellow freshman guard Tommy Kurth began wane. Like Broekhoff, Kenney was solid from behind the arc (35 percent). He can play the point in a pinch, but is definitely better fit to play the 2. Kenney is a player who will need to play well early in the season or risk losing his spot in the rotation.
G—Erik Buggs (So, Redshirt): Entering his third year with the Crusaders, Buggs is the most experienced PG on the roster. Buggs only played in six games last season after suffering a stress fracture in his left leg. The way the roster is set up, there is likely only room for one backup PG (Buggs or Tommy Kurth) in the rotation. I give the advantage to Buggs based on his defense. Though undersized, he is probably the second best pure defender on the team. However, he could lose his spot to Kurth if his offensive numbers don’t improve. Averaging four PPG as a backup point guard in this offense isn’t problematic, but his career assist/turnover ratio in the neighborhood of one is a cause for concern.
G—Tommy Kurth (So): Likely to lose his spot in the rotation to the retuning Erik Buggs and true freshman Jay Harris. Kurth looked good in early performances after Buggs was lost to injury. However, it seemed as if he didn’t have the athletic ability to keep up with D-I guards. He eventually lost minutes to Matt Kenney, who proved to be more of a scoring threat. Unless there is an injury, I don’t expect Tommy Kurth to get much floor time.
G—Nick Sheldon (Jr): The more you see of Nick Sheldon, the better. Always popular with the student section, Sheldon checking in to the game is an indicator that Homer feels the game is well in hand.
11/12—Opener vs. IUNW
12/2—HL opener @ UIC
1/9—vs. Cleveland State
2/3—@ Cleveland State
2/19—ESPN BracketBuster vs. TBA
2/26—Senior night vs. UIC
The 2010-11 Crusaders will have a dynamic offense unlike any seen recently. Brandon Wood will make a run at a second scoring title. If a second post option can be established, Cory Johnson has the potential to transition from a very good center to a dominant power forward. Wood and Johnson should both be in the running for POY in the conference. Harris should make a run at newcomer of the year. Anything less than 20 wins should be seen as a disappointment.
If Johnson, Rogers and Buggs can improve the team defense, Valpo can make a run at 25-plus wins and a run at the conference title. I predict 22-25 wins and a second place finish in the Horizon League. If that happens, the only thing standing between the Crusaders and the NCAA tournament will be a showdown against the Butler Bulldogs in Hinkle Fieldhouse.
I Lied…One More Question
How much longer will Coach Drew remain on the Crusader bench before handing the reigns over to Bryce? I believe he is going to hold out and try to get one more trip to the NCAA tournament before calling it quits.
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