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Valparaiso Crusaders see ups, downs in busy opening weekend

The Crusaders still have questions to answer despite two wins over the weekend

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-2nd Round-Maryland vs Valparaiso
Jubril Adekoya has taken over the starting center job for Matt Lottich and Valpo.
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Valparaiso enters this season with high expectations. The Crusaders have one of the best mid-major players in the country in Alec Peters and are expected to win the Horizon League.

But they enter the season with some question marks too.

Valpo lost key contributors at the point guard (Keith Carter) and center (Vashil Fernandez) positions. Matt Lottich is also taking over at head coach after multiple, successful decades under the Drew family. How the Crusaders deal with these issues will determine whether they can meet the preseason expectations.

After two wins on opening weekend, some questions have been replaced with answers.

There is some clarity at the point guard position. Heading into the season, it appeared to be a three player race between juniors Lexus Williams and Max Joseph, as well as freshman Micah Bradford. As it stands today, Williams holds the edge. He got the start in both games and helped spark the Crusaders’ comeback on Saturday night against NAIA Trinity Christian with seven steals.

But the point guard battle is not yet decided.

Valpo’s offense struggled to find a rhythm, leading to a tight game (at times) against Southern Utah, and a 16-point deficit to Trinity. The Crusaders are shooting just 21.1 percent from three, partly due to a lack of offensive flow. Bradford has struggled offensively and Joseph has been used more as a shooting guard, leading to the early minutes for Williams at the point.

As for replacing Fernandez, senior Jubril Adekoya has been the starting center job. No matter who the Crusaders put in this role, they were going to be giving up a lot of defense compared to what Fernandez brought. However, they should expect to get more offense from Adekoya than they did from Fernandez. He’s struggled from the field thus far, shooting just 5-for-16. That being said, Adekoya has still looked like the best option at center. The other two options, Derrik Smits and Jaume Sorolla, have played like the freshmen that they are.

Valpo did pick up two double digits in Lottich’s debut weekend, but neither were pretty. The Crusaders saw a double digit halftime lead evaporate on Friday night as Southern Utah cut the lead to just two with 7:25 to play.

Saturday was cause for greater concern as they struggled for much of the game against an NAIA opponent. Trinity led by as much as 16 in the first half, and Valpo didn’t take the lead for good until about midway through the second half.

Despite the struggles, the second half of Saturday’s game is encouraging. The Crusaders went on an extended run sparked by increased defensive pressure. Valpo had success in recent seasons turning defense into offense. Against Trinity, the Crusaders scored 25 points on the fast break and got 32 points off of turnovers. They looked most comfortable running in transition and will need to take advantage of that as the year progresses.

While there is cause for concern, there were flashes of the last year’s great team. Peters has gone just 3-for-15 from distance, but shot above 40 percent from three the last two seasons. The team’s offense will get a boost once his shots start falling.

The Crusaders have a quick turnaround with a game against Coppin State on Monday night. It wasn’t a perfect or pretty weekend, but they did get two wins and, most importantly, are playing better as a unit.