As the season approaches, Mid-Major Madness will be taking a closer look at its preseason Power 15 teams.
7. Valparaiso Crusaders
Bryce Drew's Valparaiso squad is coming off a conference title despite being the underdogs to Green Bay all season long, a conference tournament win which in the Horizon League is never a given, and an NCAA Tournament appearance where the Crusaders pushed Maryland to the limit before losing by three.
From that team Valparaiso loses a single player, David Chadwick, who played just 105 minutes. That is why the Crusaders were the overwhelming choice to repeat as conference champions and return to the NCAA Tournament this season, with the experience to pull an upset.
With all the returning production from last season, no player is more important to the success of Valparaiso than Alec Peters. The junior averaged 16.8 points and 6.7 rebounds last season while shoring up the inside at both the 4 and 5 with an average of almost 31 minutes per game. His game showed progression from a freshman year that saw him struggle at times to separate himself in the offense and score using the natural talent he has.
That talent includes the ability to stretch the defense as he did last year when he shot 46 percent and made 83 3-pointers. That ability makes him difficult to defend with a traditional big man, while his 6-9 frame makes it even harder to put a guard on him that far from the basket.
But Peters isn't the only thing going for the Crusaders. With the return of Vashil Fernandez, Valparaiso has the best defender in the league, a 6-10 block machine who turned away almost 100 shots last year. Combined with Peters -- another excellent defender -- and Darien Walker, who had 26 steals and 10 blocks to go with 124 defensive boards, Valparaiso will spot the best defense in the league, especially now that Green Bay has lost both Keifer Sykes and Greg Mays.
Darien Walker and Fernandez were joined on the preseason second team all-league squad by Tevonn Walker, who had a great freshman campaign that saw him start 33 of 34 games and score more than 10 points per contest.
The pursuit of the repeat title will start by getting ready during the nonconference season. Drew has challenged the team with a schedule that looks primed to prepare them for a March during November and December. The Crusaders face Iona, Rhode Island, Oregon, Oregon State, and Belmont twice (a perk of the special scheduling relationship that the Bruins have with the Horizon League). The Oregon game looms especially large as the Ducks are expected to be in the hunt for the Pac-12 title, and have an experienced, quick team that will provide a difficult test, but also a strong resume builder. It will be tough to go 6-0 against these six, but it will help to prime the Crusaders for what the NCAA Tournament is likely to throw at them.
And of course, the Horizon League schedule will be a difficult run again, with strong squads at Oakland and Milwaukee and an up-and-coming team in Detroit. It won't be a cakewalk to the crown, but then again, no team ever has it easy in the Horizon League.
With so much returning talent, and the experience gained last season in March, Valparaiso is primed to make it back to the NCAA Tournament. Alec Peters provides the foundation, and has a chance to be not just the Horizon League Player of the Year, but also make a run at bigger awards at the end of the year -- as a junior. Look for the Crusaders to take the Horizon League crown, and score enough big wins during nonconference to be in the hunt for an at-large opportunity should the conference tournament prove to be as chaotic as it is known for (especially since the conference champ no longer gains home court advantage).
The Crusaders should be dancing come March, and this time, that dance could span two weekends.