Valparaiso did its best to not let the bittersweet that others feel for them show Tuesday night when the small-town Horizon League school invaded Madison Square Garden and eventually took down slightly larger BYU 72-70 after nearly blowing a big lead in the NIT semifinals.
We cover almost exclusively mid-majors here at Big Apple Buckets, and we feel the pain they go through when trying to compete on an allegedly level playing field. So when a team like Valparaiso (30-6, a school record for victories), with wins at Rhode Island and Oregon State, gets left out of the NCAA Tournament field after being upset in the Horizon League semifinals, we shake our collective heads.
And with every Valpo victory in the NIT – combined with each one from their likely NCAA replacement, Syracuse – you wonder if maybe, just maybe it could have been a special season for someone like little old Valparaiso. The condescending tone of the previous sentence doesn’t begin to tell how good the Crusaders really are.
Valparaiso 72, BYU 70 final. Shane Hammink with the game-saving block for Crusaders. #NIT pic.twitter.com/DgJQ1R7JoQ
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) March 30, 2016
Sadly, the world will not know Alec Peters, Keith Carter, Tevonn Walker, and Vashil Fernandez (and their teammates) as Valpo’s non-conference losses to Ball State and Belmont (both on the road, of course) eventually proved fatal to their NCAA Tournament hopes.
David Skara, clutch…#GoValpo #ValpoGameday #FTW pic.twitter.com/RcZmyRJfqu
— Valpo Athletics (@valpoathletics) March 30, 2016
Luckily, pessimism is nowhere to be found in Bryce Drew’s DNA, so when Valpo’s name wasn’t called on Selection Sunday (and looking at the various bracketologies, it probably didn’t come as a huge shock to them, although the fact they were a No. 1 seed in the NIT means they were really close), Drew took about 30 seconds to grieve and then turned that frown upside down and got his team ready for the NIT, which – as a top seed – featured an all home game route to New York City.
Valpo beat Texas Southern, Florida State, and Saint Mary’s (another mid-major who had a decent case for an NCAA berth) to become the first mid-major since Wichita St. in 2011 to grace the Big Apple in the NIT.
“This has been a wonderful experience for our program, for our guys,” Drew said. “The three home games we had were sensational. Getting to be in New York City and playing in the Garden, as a coach you’re a little worried about focus and things like that because the guys were having such a great time.”
Peters had 15 points and nine rebounds Tuesday and is averaging 18.3 points and 8.4 rebounds per game while shooting 51% from the field and 45% from three this season, and if you just said, “Wow”, that means you probably didn’t see enough of him, which isn’t necessarily your fault (you can watch the final now Thursday, though). At 6’9″, he has a chance to make it in the NBA, but will likely return next season for his senior campaign.
Shane Hammink #slamjam right before the half ends. #GoValpo #valpoGameday pic.twitter.com/EFdKzhAWmP
— Valpo Athletics (@valpoathletics) March 29, 2016
Like everyone else involved with the program, surely he would have liked the chance to play on the biggest stage there is, but a half-filled World’s Most Famous Arena is still a lot better than nothing, and as was previously alluded to, not an opportunity many mid-majors have gotten of late.
“We’re over it (the NCAA rejection) at this point. We’re playing for an NIT championship, which in my mind is almost better than getting to the first round of the NCAA Tournament and losing,” Peters said. “We have a chance of winning our last game, which not very many teams get to say.”
The Atlantic 10 is a little higher up the food chain, and it’s hard to say George Washington (27-10) was really close to making the NCAAs as a No. 4 NIT seed, but they’ve certainly earned respect for both themselves and the non-BCS conferences of the world with their mid-to-late March run, beating Hofstra, Monmouth (on the road), and Florida to book their New York trip, and completely annihilating Mountain West regular season champion San Diego State 65-46 Tuesday.
Vashil #SlamJam #Posterized #valpogameday #GoValpo pic.twitter.com/OdeFaEfWPK
— Valpo Athletics (@valpoathletics) March 29, 2016
It will be easy down the road to dismiss what happened in the NIT. Once Saturday’s Final Four resumes and Syracuse takes its shot at being the ultimate Cinderella (at least in terms of seed), the NIT will not just be sent to the background nationally, it will be gone forever. Quick: Name the last four NIT champions and runner-ups. If you did, I salute you, but you’re likely not telling the truth.
But they can’t take away the trophy that the winner will get. And while no NCAA banner will go up in either place, one of Valparaiso and George Washington will win a national Division I title for the first time in their history. More importantly, they have provided significant evidence that there are good basketball teams outside of the top few conferences that get 99% of the media attention in the land.
“It’s definitely something we’re proud of. I’m proud of our university,” Drew said. “It’s great for our fans to be able to come to Madison Square Garden and watch Valparaiso basketball. I think on all fronts this is a great experience for us.”
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