After losing their first two games of the Las Vegas Invitational, Homer Drew's Valparaiso Crusaders salvaged a fifth place finish (out of eight) with wins over Northern Colorado and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. For those of you entered in a Las Vegas Invitational pool, No. 6 Kansas won the tournament championship with an 87-79 victory over Kansas.
Senior swingman Howard Little was named the Valpo representative on the all-tournament team, averaging 9.8 points, 5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists over four games. Little's best games came over the weekend, an 18, 2, and 2 performance Friday followed by 13, 8, and 1 on Saturday.The first two rounds of the tournament were played at campus sites over the past two weeks.
Round 1: Lawrence, KS—Kansas 79-Valpo 44
This result should come as little surprise to any person with knowledge of either program. Playing Big XII powerhouse powerhouse Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse is a tough draw for any team, nonetheless a mid-major program of Valpo's stature. The Jayhawks dominated every aspect of the game, especially in the post. Kansas forwards combined for 44 points and 35 rebounds. Meanwhile, Valpo forwards Corey Johnson and Keven Van Wijk spend most of the game in foul trouble, ending with 4 PFs each.
To their credit, Johnson and Van Wijk both put up 10. Johnson added 7 rebounds as well. Other than the forwards, Brandon Wood was the only Crusader to accomplish much. He led the team in rebounds (7) and assists (4) while scoring 9. Though disappointing, losing to Kansas is nothing to be too worried about. The Jayhawks beat Texas A&M-Corpus Christi by 41 and Ohio by 57 in their other two early-round games.
Round 2: Athens, OH—Ohio 78-Valpo 75
After a blowout win over Purdue-North Central, the Crusaders headed to Athens for a second round game against Ohio. Along with Kent State and Akron, the 2009-10 MAC champion Bobcats are one of the favorites in the conference this season. The match up between one of the MAC's top programs and Horizon League's top programs certainly lived up to my expectations.
Valpo battled back from a 15-point first half deficit and went to the half with the slimmest of leads (32-31). The game remained close though the end with Ohio going ahead for good with just under three minutes remaining. The Bobcats were very balanced on the offensive side of the floor, with six scorers reaching double figures. On the other hand, Valpo was led by the usual suspects, Cory Johnson (19, 7, 2) and Brandon Wood (17, 6, 7). Sophomore Ryan Broekhoff had a big game as well (24, 7, 2) shooting 9-13 from the field (3-4 from behind the arc).
Though a road loss to a program the caliber of Ohio is not a problem in and of itself, there are some concerns from last season that resurfaced during the game. The Crusaders allowed themselves to get down early, trailing by as much as 15 in the first half. Too many times last season did Homer Drew's team put itself behind the 8-ball early. To its credit, the team managed to fight back and actually take a lead to the half. Last season, the team would usually roll over when facing a deficit of that size.
The second problem is the poor road play. Last season, VU lost three road games to teams of equal or lesser talent (Akron, Bowling Green, and IPFW). They will have three chances in the next two weeks to improve their play away from home against beatable opponents (UIC, Loyola, and Toledo).
Game 3: Las Vegas, NV—Valpo 76-Northern Colorado 61
Another slow start left the Crusaders with a much bigger mountain to climb than was necessary. Forwards Cory Johnson and Kevin Van Wijk both had 3 fouls in the first half while the team shot 6-26 in the first half. The Northern Colorado lead was as large as 11 in the first half, and the Bears went to the break up 6.
After halftime the Crusaders were finally able to get the offense going. Little, Broekoff, and Sophomore Matt Kenney made 9 three-pointers in the second half as Valpo outscored the Bears 50-29. All three players scored in double figures (18, 15, and 11 respectively) to lead the Crusaders to the comeback win.
For the second straight game, the Crusaders allowed themselves to get down by double digits in the first half. Unlike Ohio, Northern Colorado is a clearly inferior opponent, talent-wise. Luckily, Valpo has the firepower to dig themselves out of holes like these. However, when they get start the meat of the Horizon League schedule in late December, the Crusaders will not be able to get down like this and expect to win.
Game 4: Las Vegas, NV—Valpo 68-Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 62
The Texas A&M-CC Islanders gave Valpo a much tougher game that I expected in the tournament's final round. For the third consecutive game, the Crusader offense had a first half that was below average by VU standards. After jumping out to a 9-2 lead, Valpo let the Islanders back in the game, going to the half with a one-point lead (27-26). In the second half, the offense played more like I expected, putting up 41.
Johnson (18, 5, 1) and Little (13, 8, 1) led the team offensively. Most players who saw the court managed to get on the stat sheet in VU's hard-fought victory. Senior G/F Michael Rogers had his third straight solid game off the bench (he averaged over 5 PPG for the tournament) and Kenney built on his outstanding Friday performance.
One of the biggest contributors to Valpo's win Saturday was free throw shooting. A constant thorn in the team's side for the last five-plus years, the Crusaders made 23 of 28 (18.2%) to seal the victory. Johnson and Freshman PG Jay Harris both went 6-6, while Little went 4-6 and Kenney 3-4 from the line. If shooting like this continues, the Crusaders should be able to win more of their close games.
Are you Encouraged or Discouraged by Valpo's performance in the Las Vegas Invitational?
Overall, Valpo's results from this tournament were a mixed bag. The team found itself in down by double digits in the first half three times in four games. However, twice they were able to battle back and make a game of it. I would have liked to see a win in Athens and a more convincing victory over Texas A&M-CC. Defending Horizon League scoring champ Brandon Wood had a great game at Ohio, but still finished under 10 PPG for the tournament. If Valpo is to contend for the Horizon League Title, they will need more from him offensively.
On the positive side, Valpo was able to battle back twice after getting down early. All three Seniors (Johnson, Little, and Rogers) are showing outstanding leadership qualities. Little and Rogers have swapped places from my projected rotation. Ryan Broekhoff continued his outstanding play on both sides of the ball. At the end of the season, he may end up as VU's MVP. Newcomers Jay Harris and Kevin Van Wijk appear to be settling in well with the rest of the Crusader team. Lastly, it appears that Matt Kenney has taken the final spot in the rotation from fellow Sophomore Tommy Kurth. If he continues to show progress as a ball handler and defender, he may start taking minutes away from Erik Buggs.