VALPARAISO, Ind. — For the second straight year, Valparaiso basketball is ranked in the middle of the pack in the Horizon League preseason rankings. One reason behind the ranking is the biggest loss of the season coming before their first preseason game.
Sophomore point guard Lexus Williams suffered a torn ACL in practice a few weeks ago. Williams started at point guard last season.
This leaves the Crusaders is a situation that mirrors the one a year ago. Who is next in line and can they make the team competitive?
Head coach Bryce Drew is confident in the depth that he has created.
“It’s a great opportunity for another player to step up,” Drew said at Horizon League Media Day. “The nice thing about our team is we have a lot of players who can handle the ball, a lot of versatility. Last year, (junior) Keith Carter backed up Lexus. So he has a great opportunity to seize that position and help our team tremendously. We also have a freshman, Max Joseph, that has been playing point guard also. So he’ll be thrown in the fire right away. Hopefully he’ll be ready to play at this level of competition.”
Speaking of players being thrown into the fire, Alec Peters is going to have to pick up even more of the offense as leader LaVonte Dority graduated after last season. Dority finished his senior season averaging a team-best 15.7 points a game. Peters followed with about 13 points a game.
Peters has been selected on the Horizon League first team along with Chicago native Keifer Sykes.
“Having more of a leadership role is something I could step in to, as far as playing experience,” Peters said at media day. “I know I’m only a sophomore, but I’ve been very fortunate season with the coaches playing me a lot, which was very nice of them. This year I definitely want to step up to more of a leadership role and be the guy that other players and younger players will go to with questions and if they just need to talk. As far as scoring and rebounding, we can balance that out among anybody on our team. We have the talent, we have the versatility to be able to score from anywhere, be able to rebound, and play defense in any way we want. So it’s definitely more of a leadership aspect for me.”
Drew and the Crusaders are expecting big things from Peters as he prepares for the season. The Crusaders are seeing a great player grow right in front of them.
“His work ethic, the amount of time he spends in the gym working on his game is nothing we ever question,” Drew said. “I wish the coaches could take credit for it, but it’s his work ethic, it’s his time in the weight room, it’s his time on the court, it’s his time on the shooting gun. He’s much quicker this year. He was a very good shooter last year, and he’s improved his shooting. He’s improved his ball handling. And defensively, he’s defending much better than he did as a freshman. The first couple of weeks he has shown all of that improvement in our practices.”
Peters’ expectations are clearly very high, but senior center Vashil Fernandez’s might be even bigger as a presence down low. After losing big men Bobby Capobianco and Moussa Gueye, Fernandez has to step up big time.
“I think it’s going to be a big burden,” Fernandez said. “But the preparation I’ve done this summer, learning to be a better shot blocker and rebounder, will help me to step into that role.”
One new player who could step up and surprise Crusader fans is be E. Victor Nickerson. Nickerson, who transferred from Charlotte for two seasons, started 15 games as a sophomore.
The Crusaders need to use him and a bunch of unknowns if they want to make it far in the Horizon League, but for the players who have been there, tip-off can’t come soon enough. Peters spoke about his team’s loss in the Horizon League championship game to the Milwaukee Panthers..
“Well, definitely it’s motivation to not want to feel like that again.” Said Peters. “Coming into this year, it’s going to be in your mind until we start playing that first game, until the ball tips for the first time. It’s definitely not something that you ever want to experience again. Our team is working hard to reach our goal so we’re not feeling like that at the end of the year.”