Alec Peters had 27 points, nine boards and a pair of blocks, including on a potential game-tying three, as Valparaiso picked up yet another impressive win, knocking off No. 21 Rhode Island, 65-62.
Peters, who entered the game averaging better than 25 points on the season, is one of the best players in the country, not just at the mid-major level, and what makes this result so significant is that it means the Crusaders are in a really good spot to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
Granted, there is a ton of basketball left to be played.
But as of today, Valpo has wins over URI, BYU and Alabama. The Rams figure to contend for the Atlantic 10 title, the Cougars look like a potential tournament team and Alabama plays in the SEC, which means that it should at least be a top 100 win come Selection Sunday. Their only loss? On the road against an Oregon team that you have to figure will end up back in the mix at the top of the Pac-12 come February.
And they still get a chance to swing up at Kentucky in Rupp Arena next week.
I’m not saying that this team is a lock to get an at-large bid, not by any stretch.
But if they beat who they’re supposed to beat, if they take care of business in the Horizon League and falter in their conference tournament, they should find themselves in a really good spot to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
For a team in a mid-major league, that’s really all you can ask.
As a freshman at St. Louis, Carter played in the Billikens’ first two games of the 2012-13 season and once more on Dec. 19 before suffering a foot injury. Interim coach Jim Crews would not allow Carter to redshirt that season, and he subsequently transferred, playing the second semester of the 2013-14 season for Valpo.
“I wish I would’ve never played half a season at Valpo,” Carter told The Times, “and I would’ve just sat out the whole year.”
Valpo worked with St. Louis to try to get Carter a medical redshirt for that season but to no avail, according to the Times.
Carter averaged 10.3 points and 4.5 assists per game in what proved to be his final season as a Crusader.
Now, Valpo will be left waiting to learn the fate of another one of its players. Alec Peters, who averaged 18.4 points and 8.5 rebounds per game last season, has declared for the NBA Draft, but has not hired an agent. He was not invited to this week’s NBA Draft Combine, but still is able to work out for teams and has two weeks before he needs to decide whether to return or not for his senior season.
GAME OF THE DAY: No. 1 Kentucky at UCLA, 9:00 p.m. (ESPN)
The Wildcats and Bruins meet at Pauley Pavilion, and hopefully this game is more competitive than last season’s matchup in Chicago. Kentucky dominated from start to finish, posting a halftime score more fitting of a college football “buy” game than a college basketball game between two of the sport’s storied programs (41-7). Many of the faces have changed for John Calipari’s team but the results remain the same to this point, although it remains to be seen how healthy sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis is (hyperextended right elbow). That, along with UCLA’s front court tandem of Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh, will be keys to keep an eye on tonight.
MID-MAJOR GAME OF THE DAY: Belmont at Valparaiso, 8:00 p.m.
Two of the top mid-major programs will meet in Valparaiso, with the Crusaders hosting the Bruins in a matchup of the preseason favorites in the OVC (Belmont) and Horizon League (Valparaiso). Bryce Drew’s Crusaders have been stingy defensively with senior Vashil Fernandez serving as the anchor, and they’ve got a number of scoring options including forward Alec Peters. That defense will need to be at its best to slow down Rick Bryd’s team, which features guard Craig Bradshaw and forward Evan Bradds.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
1. No. 6 Oklahoma is the only other ranked team in action tonight, with the Sooners hosting Central Arkansas (8:00 p.m., ESPNU). The perimeter triumvirate of Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard have played well thus far, as has senior forward Ryan Spangler. If anything, this game should give front court players such as Akolda Manyang, Jamuni McNeace and Khadeem Lattin added reps with the struggling Bears arriving in Norman with a 1-5 record.
2. USF, which has won two of its last three games after starting the season 0-4 (the lone loss to Kentucky, so no shame there), hits the road to take on Delaware. This is an important game for Orlando Antigua’s team, as their next two contests are against South Carolina and NC State. If the Bulls are to have any shot at leaving Newark with a win, they’ll need to slow down a balanced offensive attack that boasts five players averaging between 8.3 and 13.5 points per game led by forward Cazmon Haynes (13.5, 7.0 rpg).
3. UT-Arlington, which already has wins over Ohio State and Memphis to its credit and lost at Texas in overtime earlier this week, hosts North Texas in a game they should take care of. Scott Cross’s Mavericks haven’t been great when it comes to shooting the ball but they’re one of the nation’s best on the offensive glass, as they’ve rebounded 42.5 percent of their missed shots (fifth nationally). Leading the way has been forward Kevin Hervey, who’s averaging 17.3 points and ten rebounds per game.
4. Colorado State, which has won five of its first six games, hosts a tested Long Beach State team in what should be an entertaining contest. And if you like transfers this game’s loaded with them, with Nick Faust (Maryland) leading the way for the 49ers and junior college transfer Emmanuel Omogbo being one of five averaging double figures for Colorado State while also leading the team in rebounding (12.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg). CSU’s Gian Clavell has been one of the Mountain West’s most improved players thus far, averaging 21.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.
5. USC will look to rebound from their 1-2 weekend in Orlando by winning at UCSB. The Gauchos are led by senior guard Michael Bryson, who accounted for 23 points, five rebounds and six assists in a two-point loss at Arizona State over the weekend. He’s joined in the backcourt by John Green, who will look to bounce back from a 2-for-12 outing against the Sun Devils. USC doesn’t lack for talent on the perimeter either with Jordan McLaughlin leading the way, and forwards Nikola Jovanovic and Bennie Boatwright can score as well.
6. Louisiana and ULM meet in the Sun Belt opener for both, with the Ragin’ Cajuns pegged as the preseason favorites to win the league. Shawn Long will lead the way for the Ragin’ Cajuns, with ULM countering with its own 6-foot-10 senior big man in Majok Deng. These are two of the top offensive teams in the Sun Belt, with the Ragin’ Cajuns shooting a league-best 51.3 percent from the field and the Warhawks third in the conference at 45.5 percent. But ULM has been the better defensive team thus far, which should make for an interesting matchup.
“Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.”
Whether or not you agree with the statement made by the late Paul “Bear” Bryant, there’s no denying the importance of defense when it comes to winning games. Teams can score as much as they want, but if they can’t get stops on the other end they’ll be in trouble. Ahead of the start of the 2015-16 season, we’ve put together our picks for the best defensive players in the country. Some will be shot blockers and others masters of the steal, and there will be a couple strong positional defenders as well.
Who’d we miss? Who should they replace? Feel free to leave your answers below.
G Kris Dunn, Providence
As a redshirt sophomore the 6-foot-4 Dunn averaged 2.7 steals per game, with his length and athleticism allowing the national Player of the Year candidate to make life difficult for opposing point guards. He can be a bit of a gambler at times, but overall he’s a very difficult matchup at a position where many point guards hover around the 6-foot mark.
G Ron Baker, Wichita State
If you don’t know Baker’s résumé by now, that’s on you. Baker is one of the nation’s top on-ball defenders, keeping his man out of the paint while also challenging scoring opportunities on the perimeter. As a junior Baker led the Shockers in both defensive rebounds (157) and blocked shots (27).
G Gary Payton II, Oregon State
Payton’s selection as Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year was a controversial one, with many believing that Arizona’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson should have been the choice. But neither that nor the fact that Oregon State relied on a matchup zone to mask its lack of depth should not overshadow the impact “The Mitten” had defensively as he led the Beavers in steals (95) and was second in blocks (39).
F Hassan Martin, Rhode Island
The 6-foot-7 Martin became just the second player in URI history to record 100 blocks or more in a season, tallying 103 (3.1 bpg). The Staten Island native is also a good rebounder (7.7 rpg), and his length and athleticism allow Martin to play “bigger” than his height in the paint.
C Amida Brimah, Connecticut
The 7-footer from Ghana led the nation in blocked shots a season ago, recording 121 which was good for an average of 3.46 rejections per game (second nationally). Having a rim protector the caliber of Brimah helps teams be more active on the perimeter, as they have a big man capable of cleaning up mistakes.
SECOND TEAM ALL-DEFENSE
G Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
The 5-foot-9 Ulis is an absolute pest defensively, thanks to a combination of effort and quickness. Ulis played in a reserve role last season, which somewhat explains the average of just one steal per game. But defending isn’t all about impressive stats, and with Kentucky’s shot blockers Ulis can afford to be aggressive in defending the ball. We’re betting that his reputation grows in this area in 2015-16.
G Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia
Virginia’s pack line defense doesn’t lend itself to eye-popping individual stats. But that shouldn’t be used as a reason to overlook what the fifth-year senior does on the defensive end of the floor. One of the top players in the country, the 6-foot-5 Brogdon was also named to the ACC’s All-Defensive Team in 2014-15.
G Rapheal Davis, Purdue
Last season the Boilermakers’ team leader was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, winning the honor despite finishing the year with eight blocks and 28 steals. He isn’t going to dominate those statistical areas, but that doesn’t mask his ability to make life difficult for whoever head coach Matt Painter asks him to guard (usually the opponent’s best perimeter player).
F Skylar Spencer, San Diego State
Spencer is the rim protector on one of the nation’s best defenses, averaging 2.5 blocks per game as a junior. The 6-foot-10 Spencer finished the year with an individual block percentage of 12.7 per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, a figure that ranked seventh nationally. Teams don’t get many chances to penetrate the SDSU defense, and once in the paint Spencer serves as quite the deterrent.
C Vashil Fernandez, Valparaiso
Fernandez receiving his fourth year of eligibility was a big boost to a program expected to make a return trip to the NCAA tournament. Last season the 6-foot-10 center earned Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year honors, as he ranked 11th in the country with an average of 2.9 blocks per game and sixth in block percentage (13.0).
Also considered: Anthony Gill (Virginia), A.J. Hammons (Purdue), Buddy Hield (Oklahoma), Brice Johnson (North Carolina), Jameel McKay (Iowa State), A.J. West (Nevada)
Every March some plucky underdog seemingly comes out of nowhere to pull off an upset in the NCAA tournament, wrecking brackets across the country in the process. The key word in that sentence is “seemingly,” because each year there are teams that show signs throughout the season that they’re capable of winning once in the NCAA tournament.
Below are ten programs capable of pulling off an upset in the NCAA tournament as we approach the start of the 2015-16 campaign.
1. UAB: Jerod Haase’s Blazers pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2015 NCAA tournament, as they sent home three-seed and trendy Final Four pick Iowa State in the round of 64. All five starters from that team have returned, including two players in forward William Lee and guard Nick Norton who ranked among the top freshmen in Conference USA a season ago and conference tournament MVP Robert Brown. Reigning C-USA Sixth Man of the Year Chris Cokley anchors a deep and experienced bench. And with Brown being the Blazers’ lone senior, they could be at the top of this list in 2016-17 as well.
2. Valparaiso: The Crusaders narrowly missed out on an upset back in March, falling by just three points to four-seed Maryland. Vashil Fernandez receiving his fourth season of eligibility means that head coach Bryce Drew can call upon one of the top front court tandems around, pairing Fernandez with junior Alec Peters. Peters was a first team all-Horizon League selection last season, with Fernandez being the Defensive Player of the Year. In total ten of the eleven players who scored a point for Valparaiso last season are back, with guards Tevonn Walker and Darien Walker and wing E. Victor Nickerson among those contributors.
3. Stephen F. Austin: Brad Underwood’s first two seasons at SFA have produced consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and the Lumberjacks have enough experience and talent to push that streak to three. Five seniors led by reigning Southland Conference Player of the Year Thomas Walkup have seen a lot in their college careers, including a wild win over VCU in the 2014 NCAA tournament. A group that was good on both ends of the floor (they ranked fifth in defensive turnover percentage, too) and won 29 of their final 30 games a season ago should pick up right where they left off in March.
4. Belmont: Like the three teams ahead of them on this list Rick Byrd’s Bruins reached the NCAA tournament a season ago, where they ran into a tough matchup in Virginia’s pack line defense. However it should be noted that Belmont scored 67 points in that loss, a mark met or surpassed by Virginia opponents just four times in 2014-15. Four starters from that team are back in Nashville, led by the OVC’s best player in senior guard Craig Bradshaw and the nation’s field goal percentage champion Evan Bradds (68.8 percent). The Bruins are highly efficient offensively, and that could make life difficult for an opponent unfamiliar with their style/personnel.
5. Old Dominion: Jeff Jones’ Monarchs fell short of their goal of an NCAA tournament bid a season ago, but they didn’t sulk once in the Postseason NIT. Trey Freeman and company reached the semifinals of that event, and the postseason experience should serve this group well. Freeman’s one of the best players in Conference USA, and in total ODU welcomes back three starters and four of their top six scorers. East Carolina transfer Brandan Stith pairs up with leading rebounder Denzell Taylor to help ODU account for the loss of Jonathan Arledge and Richard Ross from their front court, and this is a group that can be dangerous in a one-and-done scenario.
6. UC Irvine: The prohibitive favorites in the Big West, Russell Turner’s Anteaters had eventual Elite Eight participant Louisville on the ropes back in March. UC Irvine fell by just two points on that day, and many of the key contributors from that team have returned for another run at the NCAA tournament. That includes experienced guards Alex Young and Luke Nelson, wing Dominque Dunning and a front court with some serious size led by 7-foot-6 junior Mamadou Ndiaye. While UC Irvine isn’t an explosive offensive team, their defense is what makes them such a tough matchup for team not used to their style and personnel.
7. Iona: There’s no denying the fact that Tim Cluess’ Gaels are going to score points. Last season Iona averaged 79.5 points per game, and from an adjusted tempo standpoint only 11 teams played faster. Iona does have to account for the loss of MAAC Player of the Year David Laury, but four of the team’s top five scorers from a season ago are back led by high-scoring guards A.J. English and Shadrac Casimir. The key for Iona, especially in the MAAC tournament where they’ve fallen to rival Manhattan in each of the last two title games, will be their commitment on the defensive end. As we saw with Eastern Washington in March, being able to score doesn’t mean much if you can’t get stops.
8. Evansville: The Purple Aces have one of the better inside/out combinations around in high-scoring guard D.J. Balentine and forward/center Egidijus Mockevicius, who combined to average 32.6 points per game in 2014-15. That tandem helped lead Marty Simmons’ team to the CIT championship, and with all five starters back expectations are high for the Purple Aces. They’re in position to challenge preseason Missouri Valley favorite Wichita State, and given their talent and experience should Evansville reach the NCAA tournament they can cause trouble.
9. Central Michigan: Keno Davis’ Chippewas won 23 games and a MAC West Division title last season with an offense that shot the ball well and took good care of it too. All five starters, led by guard Chris Fowler and forward John Simons, are back on campus which should allow them to hit the ground running in 2015-16. The key for this group will be to get better on the defensive end of the floor (MAC foes shot nearly 54 percent from two), as they ranked 11th in field goal percentage defense, seventh in three-point percentage defense and ninth in effective field goal percentage defense (conference games only).
10. Louisiana: The biggest reason for the Ragin’ Cajuns’ inclusion on this list is the fact that they’ve got a likely pro in Shawn Long in their front court. The 6-foot-11 senior is the preseason pick for Sun Belt Player of the Year, coming off of a junior campaign in which he averaged 16.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. All five starters are back for head coach Bob Marlin, and while the Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t reach the NCAA tournament they did play in the CIT (losing to Evansville in the quarters) so there is some postseason experience to call upon.
Five others to keep in mind: Hofstra, Columbia, North Florida, Stony Brook, Pepperdine
No. 4 seed Maryland gets a stop on the final possession in knocking off No. 13 seed Valparaiso
Maryland has been great in close games throughout the 2014-15 season and that trend continued in a 65-62 win over No. 13 seed Valparaiso on Friday in the Midwest Regional. The No. 4 seed Terrapins went 11-1 in games decided by six points or less during the season, and once again, played with tremendous confidence and poise down the stretch in a tight game.
The Crusaders had a chance to tie on the game’s final possession, but junior point guard Keith Carter’s 3-pointer was stripped by Maryland senior guard Varun Ram, and Terrapin forward Evan Smotrycz grabbed the ball as time expired. The play probably could have been whistled for a foul, but no call was made by officials.
The offense for Maryland was balanced as senior guard Dez Wells and freshmen Melo Trimble and Jared Nickens all finished with 14 points each. Valparaiso was able to stay in the contest thanks to strong 3-point shooting (12-for-26), but couldn’t get over the hump in the game’s final minutes. Sophomore forward Alec Peters led the Crusaders with 18 points, while guard Tevonn Walker contributed 14 points.
With the game tied at 49 with 6:23 to go, Nickens nailed two free throws to give Maryland the lead for good. From there, Maryland held a lead between one and six points for the rest of the game as they closed out another tight game thanks to solid free-throw shooting (18-for-24) and a big 3-point play from Wells with 1:44 left off of a fantastic offensive rebound and finish in traffic.