Change was the main topic of discussion in the press conference introducing Valparaiso's new head coach Matt Lottich this afternoon. In regards to change, Lottich himself said "we can look at it as scary, or we can look at it as opportunity." However, the hiring of Lottich appears to be about limiting change as Valparaiso enters into the unknown this offseason.
Certainly an amount of uncomfortable change will occur. The Valparaiso basketball program had been led by a member of the Drew family since 1988 when Homer Drew took over the program. The family name is on the court and hangs from the rafters. The family built the program into what it is today. Without them, it is impossible to say if Valparaiso could have achieved the level of success it has enjoyed since the late 90's.
Given the stability of the program's leadership for nearly three decades, it is only natural that many surrounding the program view the upheaval resulting from Bryce Drew's departure with some fear. Valparaiso recently gained quite a bit of positive energy with its run to the NIT finals just one week ago. The program was exposed and supported to a degree not seen since the 1998 Sweet Sixteen run. The question stands now as to whether or not Valparaiso will be able to maintain local fan interest without a Drew at the helm. Beyond that, will the program be able to maintain the level of national recognition they received this past season?
Furthering concerns, Valparaiso's roster for next season is very much up in the air. The team likely loses four seniors including one of the most intimidating defensive forces in the country, Vashil Fernandez, and the team's starting point guard Keith Carter. While Carter is currently appealing the NCAA for another year of eligibility, the assumption now is he will not return. Those two players alone elevated the Crusaders to a higher level when they were on the court. The team also loses key rotation players, Darien Walker and E. Victor Nickerson. Losing all four leaves a large amount of crucial minutes to be filled next season.
Outside of the inevitable departure of seniors, the specter of possible transfers looms as well. Prior to the head coach announcement, Alec Peters expressed his intent to enter the NBA Draft without an agent. Peters is likely testing the waters without much expectation to be drafted this season. The real danger looms in the graduate transfer. Peters could transfer and be immediately eligible for his final year. He would certainly garner a great deal of interest from all over the country. While the fear of Peters' departure existed regardless or the coaching change, the possibility of others transferring as well has been dug up by the upheaval.
This is where the promotion of Lottich to head coach comes in as a strategic move by Valparaiso's athletic department. By hiring from within, athletic director Mark LaBarbera acknowledges the need to maintain as much stability as possible. During the press conference, LaBarbera pointed to Gonzaga, Dayton, and Butler as programs elevated by identifying leaders internally and staying "within the family." Fostering a sense of family in the Valparaiso community without the literal presence of the Drew family is key when hoping to maintain the level of fan support experienced during the team's NIT run.
Keeping the hire "within the family" could also prove useful in preventing unforeseen roster turnover. At this point in Valparaiso basketball's history, losing players and the momentum they have gained could be devastating. Promoting Lottich keeps a familiar face in the coach's seat for the players, possibly quelling thoughts of transferring. Lottich also announced during the press conference that longtime Valparaiso assistant Luke Gore will be maintained on the staff. With the loss of both Drew and assistant Roger Powell to Vanderbilt, the consistency of keeping Lottich and Gore assures as little change as possible internally.
Lottich's promotion could pay dividends on the recruiting trail, where the Crusaders also face a great deal of uncertainty. Valparaiso has received only one commitment for next season, guard Micah Bradford. Assuming the departure of just the four seniors, that leaves the Crusaders with three open scholarships to fill. Lottich was likely involved in the recruiting of Bradford as well as any other efforts that are in the works currently. Promoting him to head coach maintains at least a portion of the link recruits have with the university.
The promotion of Lottich to head coach appears largely to be a strategic move by Valparaiso. Lottich emphasized closeness within the team whenever possible during the press conference, saying the players expressed a desire to stay together at a recent team meeting following Drew's departure. Beyond Lottich's experience playing at the collegiate and professional levels, scouting with the National Collegiate Scouting Association, and serving as a coach on Valparaiso's bench for three seasons, his promotion has a great amount of strategic value to the basketball program. There is reason to be hopeful for Valparaiso, but a great deal still remains to be seen. This offseason represents a pivotal moment for the program. Will fear and uncertainty dictate things or will Valparaiso seize a potential opportunity to elevate the program?