The last two seasons have seen a dramatic shift in the fortunes of Homer Drew and his Valparaiso Crusaders basketball team. The former NCAA tournament staple has become a mediocre team struggling in the 2nd division of the Horizon League. The 08-09 season saw the end of the teams streak of 15 consecutive years winning at least 15 games. Valpo fans and alums have been left to ask themselves "what happened." As someone who has been on campus to witness these remarkable changes, I offer two key events (the 2006 recruiting class and the mass exodus following the 07-08 season) that changed the course of the VU basketball program, as well as a glimer of hope for the future.
The 2006 recruiting class. As the VU athletic department was preparing for the transition from the MidCon (now Summit League) to the Horizon League, an oddly small recruiting class came to the university. The class consited of 7'1" Callum MacLeod, a Junior from Wellingon, New Zealand who was expected to step in and play center from day one, and Samuel Haanpaa, a 6'8" swing man from Texas via Finland with a dead-eye for shooting the 3. MacLeod never panned out, averaging 11 mpg and 5 ppg as a Junior and 5 mpg and 2 ppg his senior season. Though he was a disappointment, Callum graduated by the time the team fell apart. Haanpaa, on the other hand, adapted to the college game quickly, averaging 12 ppg and 4 rpg as a freshman followed by a 10 ppg 3 rpg sophomore season.
The following season, Valpo would have what many considered to be the Horizon League's best recruiting class, featuring 6'10" F/C Bryan Bouchie from Southern Indiana as well as swing men Howard Little from Chicago and Michael Rogers from Jamacia. Also in this class was a controversial F from Germany, Benjamin Fumey who missed his entire freshman campaign due to eligibility issues. Bouchie, Rogers, and Little all found their way into Coach Drew's rotation early on and gelled quickly with established players Urule Igbavboa, Shawn Huff, Brandon McPherson, Jake Diebler, Jarryd Lloyd, and Samuel Haanpaa. The Crusaders' 22-14 (9-9) mark was good for 4th in the Horizon Leauge. The record, combined with the team's advance to the semifinals of the Horizon League Tournament left many people feeling good headed into the next season.
Heading in to the offseason, the team and campus were on a high. They had vastly outperformed expectations in their first season of HL basketball and were bringing back four starters (Igbavboa, McPherson, Dielber, and Haanpaa) and three of their four key reserves (Little, Rogers, and Bouchie). However, that was soon to change...In May, Bouchie announced his intention to transfer to Evansville to be closer to his family and in August, Haanpaa signed a contract to play professionally in Italy. Suddenly, in addition to losing Huff's 12 ppg and 5 rpg and Lloyd's 12 ppg 4 rpg 4 apg, the Crusaders also lost Haanpaa's 10 ppg 3 rpg and Bouchie's 7 ppg and 3 rpg. In addition to the players leaving, G Brandon McPherson (10 ppg, 2 rpg, 2 apg) would miss most of the 08-09 season with a knee injury. That is 51 total ppg and 17 rpg lost between 07-08 and 08-09! It was clear that the team would be taking a step back, the question was: "how big of a step would it be?"
The 51 ppg and 17 rpg would prove extremely difficult to fill. Benjamin Fumey, the highly touted German recruit suffered through a year plagued by injury and bad play before chosing to withrawl from Valparaiso University. Freshman Cameron Witt from Tasmania played hard, but not well enough to fill the void left by Bouchie. The progress in the play Rogers and Little slowed significantly. Guard Eric Buggs (Fr) was prone to turnovers and injuries while another freshman, Logan Jones was prone to runins with the University Police Department.
The 2009 off-season saw the departure of the aforementioned Fumey as well as team leader Jake Diebler and consisten underachiever Urule Igbavboa, replaced by another "top class" featuring guards Tommy Kurth and Matt Kenney as well as swing man Ryan Broekhoff. Addionally, transfers Corey Johnson (F-Iowa State) and Brandon Wood (G-Southern Illinois via JuCo) were both cleared to play. Both Juniors, Johnson and Wood stepped in to leadership roles alongside Brandon McPherson (granted a medical redshirt following the 08-09 season). As the team gels and players assume new roles we are beginning to see the emergence of a team that can be VERY GOOD next season as McPherson will be the only player leaving (assuming we lose no transfers). Here is what to you can expect from the roster next year:
Cory Johnson-Sr. (F/C)--The best post player this University has seen in some time, expect him to improve on his 16 ppg 6 rpg performance so far this season.
Brandon Wood-Sr. (G)--The greatest scoring threat in the entire conference could improve on his 19 ppg 5 rpg 2 apg and become conference POY next season.
Michael Rogers-Sr. (G/F)--Though his offensive game hasn't come around like some had hoped, he has proven to be the most capable defender on the roster, exhibiting a Magic Johnson like ability to guard all positions (1-5) on the court. He can give headaches to any offensive player and create mismatches on both sides of the floor.
Howard Little-Sr. (G/F)--Has a great slasher mentality and the size to do it well. Rebounds (4 pg) better than many his size and could serve as an "energy guy" sparking the team off the bench.
Ryan Broekhoff-So. (G/F) and Matt Kenney-So. (G)--These guys can shoot the lights out. With Johnson and Wood grabbing so much attention from, expect these two players to see many open looks next season, and make most of them.
Tommy Kurth-So. (G)--Has proven to be capable of running the offense. With a summer in Valpo learning the system, I have no doubt he'll start over Buggs next year.
Cameron Witt-Jr. (F) and Eric Buggs-Jr. (G)--Both of these guys have not proven to be able to keep up with the game at this level, they seem to be the most likely to lose their spots in the rotation to incoming players next season.
My Expected 2010-2011 Rotation:
F/C Cory Johnson (Sr.) F/G Michael Rogers (Sr.) F/G Ryan Broekhoff (So.) G Brandon Wood (Sr.) G Tommy Kurth (So.)
Key Reserves :
G/F Howard Little (Sr.) G Matt Kenney (So.) F Cameron Witt (Jr.)--or Freshman F--G Eric Buggs (Jr.)--or Freshman G