If a member of the Valparaiso University men’s basketball team needs a reminder of what the program is all about in 2019-2020, he doesn’t have to look far.
That reminder can be found inside the program’s recently-renovated practice facility, Kempf Court at Hilltop Gymnasium. It’s not the graphics honoring the program’s all-time greats or the displays recognizing the numerous championship teams or the lists of All-Americans, although those representations of the program’s proud past are important for this team too. It’s six simple words – or two words, really, repeated three times – that mean the most.
“THE TEAM, THE TEAM, THE TEAM!”
“Our main goal this offseason was that we wanted our team to be a team,” head coach Matt Lottich said. “We want everyone to be more focused on the team than on themselves. Our saying is ‘team over me,’ and our players have done a great job of implementing that. They have bought into one another, and it’s as close of a team as we’ve had in a long, long time.”
From summer workouts to a Canadian Foreign Tour to culture meetings to the start of official practices, this week has been months in the making for the group that will take the court. And for Valpo fans, the first chance to catch the team in action is finally here as exhibition play tips off on Saturday with Cedarville coming to the Athletics-Recreation Center for a 5 p.m. start. That contest will culminate a busy week that also includes the annual season ticketholder event on Tuesday and the “Crusader Hoops in Hammond” event on Wednesday from 3:30-6:30 p.m. at the Hammond Civic Center.
If it’s hard to believe basketball season is already upon us, that may be because this marks the earliest return of Valpo hoops to the ARC in recent memory. An open exhibition as early as Oct. 19 has no precedent in the program’s recent past, and this marks the first time the team will hold an exhibition before the calendar flips to November since an Oct. 26 date with Hillsdale in 2013.
The early exhibition is by design, as it gives Valpo ample time to correct mistakes identified in the contest prior to regular-season action. It also frees up the week leading into the Nov. 5 opener for Toledo-focused preparation.
Cedarville features Valparaiso native and Valparaiso High School graduate Conner TenHove, who led the team in scoring at 15.0 points per game and rebounding at 6.3 per game as a sophomore last season. He is also a left-handed pitcher on the Yellow Jackets baseball team.
The Yellow Jackets are members of the Division-II Great Midwest Athletic Conference. Pat Estepp, who has been the program’s head coach since the 2008-09 campaign, guided his team to a 21-12 overall and 14-6 conference mark last season, advancing to the conference semifinals before going on to win the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association (NCCAA) Championship. The date with Valpo will start a three-game exhibition slate that also features visits to Ohio State (Oct. 30) and Dayton (Nov. 2). This is Valpo’s lone exhibition, although the team will play a closed scrimmage between the exhibition and the Nov. 5 season opener.
Saturday’s game will not have video coverage available, but there will be live stats and audio. Since the normal radio home of Valpo Athletics (95.1 FM Valparaiso, WVUR) will be airing the Valpo football game at San Diego, the play-by-play call of Saturday’s action will be online only with the link set to be available on ValpoAthletics.com.
Wrapping Up Canada
Excitement for the season ramped up with a four-game August journey that saw Valpo go unblemished against Canadian competition in exhibition play. The team showed its resiliency during the trip, coming from 10 points down with 4:56 remaining on Sunday, Aug. 11, closing the contest against Concordia University with a 14-0 run to win 94-90.
A trip that also featured wins over McGill (84-78) and the University of Quebec (81-68) was highlighted by what took place on Tuesday, Aug. 13. Facing a Carleton team that had won 15 straight against NCAA Division-I competition, Valpo used an improbable overtime buzzer-beater by Daniel Sackey to win 83-80. The shot was featured on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays that evening.
Javon Freeman-Liberty scored a team-high 18.8 points per game during the Canada journey, while Donovan Clay and Mileek McMillan shared team leadership by averaging 5.3 boards apiece. A group of four Valpo players who averaged double figures in scoring also included Sackey at 15.0.
Inside the Roster
– After a decorated freshman campaign that included Missouri Valley Conference All-Freshman and All-Defensive Team recognition, Javon Freeman-Liberty is back for his sophomore season. He started all 33 games in 2018-19, averaging 11.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.8 steals per contest. Freeman-Liberty led the MVC in steals, becoming the first Valpo freshman to lead a conference in one of the five major statistical categories. He was the first Valpo player since at least 1982 to lead a conference in steals. His 60 total steals were the third-most in program history and the most by a freshman. Freeman-Liberty also ranked among Valpo’s most productive freshmen in program history in points (364, fourth) and rebounds (142). He was one of just two freshmen in program history to hold marks among the top five freshman totals in scoring, rebounding and steals.
– Fifth-year senior Ryan Fazekas is back for his third year on campus and second year of eligibility at Valpo after transferring from Providence. He started all 20 of his appearances during the 2018-19 season, but missed 13 games due to injuries. Fazekas ranked second on the team by averaging 11.8 points per game and led the team by shooting 43.2 percent from beyond the arc and knocking down 2.4 3-pointers per game. He also led the squad in free-throw percentage at 80.6.
– Fazekas is joined in the senior class by John Kiser, who appeared in 29 games as a junior and started on 11 occasions. He was a walk-on as a freshman and then received a scholarship starting with his sophomore season.
– Valpo’s two remaining returnees are junior Mileek McMillan and sophomore Daniel Sackey. McMillan is local to Northwest Indiana after playing his prep basketball at Merrillville. He saw action in 30 games last season. Sackey appeared in all 33 contests as a freshman and made 17 starts. The Winnipeg, Manitoba native enjoyed Valpo’s foreign tour to his native land in August as he knocked down a buzzer-beater to top Canadian powerhouse Carleton 83-80 in overtime. Sackey’s shot ranked ninth on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays that evening.
– After transferring into the program prior to last season, Eron Gordon and Nick Robinson both have two years of eligibility beginning this year. Gordon appeared in 48 games over his two seasons (2016-18) at Seton Hall. He was a standout in the Indianapolis area during his prep days at Cathedral, where he became a finalist for Indiana’s Mr. Basketball award. Robinson appeared in 62 games over two seasons (2016-18) at Saint Joseph’s, where he made 30 starts. He was named the Robert O’Neill Award winner as the team’s most improved player.
– Junior college transfer Zion Morgan will have two seasons of immediate eligibility starting this year. He helped lead Wabash Valley College to a 25-8 record in 2018-19 after beginning his collegiate career at UNLV during the 2016-17 campaign.
– Valpo’s crop of newcomers includes a quartet of true freshmen hailing from four different countries. Donovan Clay earned 4A First-Team All-State honors from the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association following his senior season at Alton High School. Sigurd Lorange (Trondheim, Norway), Emil Freese-Vilien (Copenhagen, Denmark) and Ben Krikke (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) have also joined the fold.
– Two walk-on players have joined the program for this season in sophomore Brock Pappas and freshman Luke Morrill. Pappas is a Valparaiso native and played basketball at Washington Township High School.
– Five players on the roster hail from Indiana, five call Illinois home and the remaining four are from countries outside of the United States.
Head Coach Matt Lottich
“We are talented and we’re playing hard. We have a lot of guys who are playing in our system for the first time, but our mistakes have been aggressive ones. We have an athletic team and we’re trying to get up and down the floor. It’s a great group to coach and they’re a lot of fun. Our guys have bought into each other, and it’s been a joy so far.”
“There’s been a lot of pride in this program for a long time, and we have significant history. We’ve won because we’ve had good teams. The sum has been bigger than just the individuals. If the team is good, it’s good for everyone. That’s been the focus. Nothing is going to be more important than the team.”