Entrance Torch

Run at the Top: The Crusaders' Success Under Bryce Drew

May 17, 2011. That was the day Homer Drew announced that his 22nd season as head coach of the Valparaiso men’s basketball program had been his final season at the helm.

After a brief intermission, Homer’s son, Bryce Drew, was introduced as the 21st head coach in program history. During his remarks, Bryce Drew jokingly thanked his dad for leaving at least one more thing that could be accomplished — the ability to win a Horizon League championship.

Homer Drew’s final team in 2010–2011 won 23 games and came as close as the Crusaders had been to winning the Horizon League title since joining the league, finishing the regular season just one game out of a share of the regular season championship.

Little did Bryce Drew know at the time he made those comments that less than five years later, he would have led Valparaiso on one of the more impressive stretches in Horizon League history. The Crusaders are just the third program in league history to win at least four regular season titles in a five-year stretch, joining Xavier and Butler.

2011–2012 — The Beginning

Bryce Drew’s first team was one which entered the season with low expectations. The Crusaders lost their top two scorers from the previous year and returned less than 40% of their scoring. Accordingly, Valparaiso was picked just fifth in the Horizon League preseason poll and earned no first-place votes.

But a pair of juniors would step up into leadership roles to lead the way for Valpo in Drew’s first season. Ryan Broekhoff emerged as a superstar, going from a Second Team All-League pick in the preseason to the Horizon League Player of the Year by year’s end. Meanwhile, Kevin Van Wijk went from scoring just over five points per game in 2010–2011 to a 14 ppg scorer in 2011–2012 and developed into one of the league’s prominent post players, also earning First Team All-League accolades.

The Horizon League slate started with a monumental win for Valpo, with the Crusaders going to Indianapolis in early December and beating Butler in Hinkle Fieldhouse for the first time since 1988. But the momentum wouldn’t carry over for the Crusaders through a nearly four-week break from league play, as Valpo would drop two of its next four league games and exit a January 8 contest at Wright State just 3-2 in Horizon League action.

But with a balanced Horizon League, the Crusaders were still just one game back of first place in the standings and took full advantage, winning eight of their next nine games. A win February 9 at Cleveland State — Valpo’s first at CSU since joining the league — capped the stretch, completed a season sweep of CSU and moved the Crusaders ahead of the Vikings in the league standings, with a two-game lead on the rest of the field.

Valpo would drop its next game at Youngstown State, but rebounded with a home win over UIC on February 14 to set itself up for a chance to clinch its first Horizon League title against Loyola one week later. It took five minutes longer than the team and fans might have liked, but the Crusaders got the job done against the Ramblers, as a 66-62 overtime victory secured the league crown. Valpo finished out the regular season with a decisive win over Butler, as the Crusaders closed the Horizon League with a 14-4 record, winning the league title by two games in Bryce Drew’s first season at the helm.

2012–2013 — Redemption

While Bryce Drew’s first season at the helm resulted in a Horizon League regular season championship, there was a sour taste in the Crusaders’ mouths entering the 2012–2013 season. Detroit downed Valpo by 20 points at the Athletics-Recreation Center in the tournament title game to deny the Crusaders a chance to advance to the NCAA Tournament.

With six seniors leading the way, including All-League selections in Broekhoff and Van Wijk, Valpo was the nation’s most experienced team heading into the 2012–2013 campaign, and expectations were high. The tables were turned from the previous season, as after being picked fifth in 2011–2012, the Crusaders were a near-unanimous favorite to repeat as league champions in 2012-13, receiving 40 of 44 first-place votes.

Valpo found out quickly, however, that being the hunted was a much different task than being the hunter. In the Crusaders’ very first league game at the ARC against Loyola on January 2, they came out flat and suffered the consequences, falling 63-54 to the Ramblers. The lesson was learned swiftly though, as Valpo rebounded with six consecutive victories, including comebacks from 11 points down with three minutes to play at Detroit and seven points down with seven minutes remaining against Wright State.

The Crusaders’ winning streak came to an end at the hands of Youngstown State on January 30, but Valpo still closed the first half of league play all alone atop the standings — a position it would not relinquish the rest of the season. A win at Loyola set the Crusaders up for a chance to secure their second straight regular season title against Youngstown State on Senior Night, and the group of six seniors made sure they would earn a second straight ring, downing the Penguins 73-64. Valpo then went into Green Bay to close out the regular season and clinched a second consecutive outright title with a 75-56 victory, finishing the league slate at 13-3.

This time, the run would not come up short of the ultimate goal, either. Despite trailing in the waning seconds of the league tournament semifinal against Green Bay, Broekhoff connected on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer for a thrilling 70-69 win to send the Crusaders to the title game. Then, three nights later, tournament MVP Erik Buggs scored a career-high 22 points and Valpo rallied from down six points with 5:37 to play for a 62-54 win over Wright State, winning its first league tournament championship and returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.

2014–2015 — The New Era

After a fourth-place finish in the 2013–2014 regular season, Drew welcomed back just seven letterwinners from that year’s team in 2014–2015, including less than 50% of their scoring from the previous season. Sophomore Alec Peters was a preseason First Team All-League selection, but with just two seniors on the team, and with five players seeing their first action at Valpo, expectations were tempered, with most believing the best was to come in 2015–2016 and beyond. Accordingly, Valpo was selected fourth in the Horizon League preseason poll, receiving no first-place votes.

The notion that the season might become something special started in the pre-league slate. Valpo dropped its second game of the season at Missouri, and also fell at home to New Mexico, but other than that, suffered no defeats. A one-two punch at the start of the Horizon League schedule seemed like it might knock Valpo back down to earth, though. First, the Crusaders opened league play at Oakland and suffered an 89-75 overtime loss.

Then, two days later in a home win over Youngstown State, Keith Carter suffered a dislocated toe late in the victory. For a Valpo squad already playing without incumbent starting point guard Lexus Williams due to an offseason knee injury, the loss of Carter left the Crusaders down to their third and fourth options at the point, in the form of E. Victor Nickerson, himself coming off double hip surgery, and Max Joseph.

Nickerson and Joseph, along with the rest of the Crusaders, stepped up to the task, however, winning the next four games, including three by double figures. A loss at Green Bay by one point in a game where Valpo had two shots in the final minute to take the lead didn’t slow the team down, as three days later, the Crusaders returned home and beat Milwaukee by 25 points.

Then, the young Valpo squad showed it could handle late-game pressure. After winning 15 of their first 19 games by double figures, the Crusaders won six consecutive games by single digits. A home win over Green Bay on February 13 moved Valpo into sole possession of first place in the league standings, and two wins later, the Crusaders were on the verge of securing another league title.

The first time would not be the charm for Valpo in 2014–2015, as the Crusaders let their first chance to win the championship slip away at Detroit in a loss. But Valpo was not to be denied, traveling to Cleveland State two nights later to face a rested Vikings team. With everything on the line, the Crusaders put together one of their best all-around efforts of the year, stifling Cleveland State defensively and getting a dagger of a shot on a four-point play from Peters with 1:11 to play in a 56-53 victory to finish Horizon League play at 13-3.

And just as the Crusaders did in 2012–2013, Valpo took advantage of the home court advantage at the ARC to claim the league tournament title as well. The Crusaders pulled out a hard-fought semifinal win over Cleveland State before locking down defensively for a come-from-behind victory over Green Bay to earn the championship and win their school-record 28th game. Then, in the NCAA Tournament, Valpo played step-for-step with Maryland all the way to the final buzzer, falling by just three points.

2015–2016 — Great Expectations

Expectations were already going to be high entering the 2015–2016 season, with Valpo returning nearly every member of its regular rotation from the 2014–2015 season. But during the summer, expectations got even higher when the program announced that Vashil Fernandez had been granted a fourth year of eligibility by the NCAA and would be returning for his final year as a Crusader — meaning that the team had 99 percent of its scoring and rebounding back from last season’s team.

Heavy favorites in the Horizon League, Valpo received unprecedented national attention during the regular season. Top-25 votes became the norm for the Crusaders. Tweets lauding Drew’s coaching, the play of Peters, or the shot-blocking ability of Fernandez were no longer confined just to national television appearances. This iteration of the Valpo men’s basketball team would have to learn to deal with being the hunted every time out.

The Crusaders handled that pressure well in the non-league slate against a challenging schedule which ended up featuring a number of league champions. A nationally-televised win at Rhode Island highlighted a grueling early stretch of five games in eight days, and Valpo later went on to split the Pac-12 Oregon trip, losing a narrow decision at Oregon before winning at Oregon State — a pair of results on that road trip matched by only two Pac-12 teams this season.

Valpo entered Horizon League play with a 10-3 record and then put together an unprecedented set of results in program history. The Crusaders won each of their first six league games, including games at Oakland and at Detroit, by at least 12 points apiece — the first time a Valpo team has won six consecutive league games by double figures.

A slip-up at Wright State dealt the Crusaders their first blemish, but they would bounce back with five more double-figure wins in a row. Another loss to the Raiders — Valpo’s first defeat at the ARC since December of 2014 — seemed like it might open the door for another team at the top of the Horizon League standings, but Valpo quickly squashed that notion, as an easy win at Cleveland State afforded the Crusaders the ability to clinch another league title at home.

A hard-fought nationally-televised two-point victory over second-place Oakland — the Crusaders’ first single-digit win of the Horizon League slate — set up the potential to win the championship on Senior Day at home against Detroit, and that Valpo did, leading start-to-finish over the Titans. The cherry on top of the Horizon League schedule came last weekend in Wisconsin, as the Crusaders pulled out a pair of dramatic victories — Carter’s 3-pointer late in overtime helping Valpo to a four-point win at Milwaukee, and Shane Hammink nailing a 3-pointer with two seconds to play for a two-point victory at Green Bay.

The five straight wins send Valpo into the upcoming Horizon League Championship at Joe Louis Arena at 26-5 overall, just two wins shy of matching last season’s program-record 28 victories. The Crusaders also finished the Horizon League schedule at 16-2 and won the league title by three full games — the first time any team has done that since the 2009–2010 Butler team, which went on to the national championship game.

Xavier won six Horizon League regular season titles in an eight-year span from 1987 to 1995. Butler won four consecutive championships from 1999 to 2003 and five more titles from 2006 to 2011. Valparaiso has now joined that group as the only programs in league history to win at least four regular season championships in a five-year span, led to all four titles by Bryce Drew. A coach who joked at his introductory press conference about being thankful there was at least one thing left to accomplish, now has accomplished it four times over.