Inside Alec Peters’ decision to return to Valparaiso

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HAWTHORNE, Calif. — The call came when the coach was at his lake house.

His wife was the one that saw whose name popped up on the screen.

This was the moment of truth for Matt Lottich.

He had never pushed, never tried to overplay his hand to sell a soon-to-be graduate student on why returning to Valparaiso was the right move. Lottich, who had just become a head coach at any level for the first time in his life, knew what he could potentially have in Alec Peters. He knew what it would mean for his program — hell, for his career — to bring back an honorable mention All-American, a potential NBA Draft pick who will likely be the best mid-major player on any of the 275-or-so mid-major teams in the country.

But he also knew the opportunity that lay in front of Peters. The 6-foot-9 forward had finished his degree in three years, meaning that he had carte blanche from the NCAA to transfer anywhere in the country without having to sit out a season.

And that was if he opted to pull his name out of the NBA Draft.

Peters could chase his dreams at the professional level. He could increase the amount of exposure he garnered as a senior by transferring to one of the powerhouse programs — “the blue bloods of college basketball,” as Peters put it — that had reached out to his high school and AAU coaches this spring. With the head coach that recruited him to Valpo, Bryce Drew, headed to Vanderbilt, the timing just made too much sense.

Lottich knew that.

And he knew that his relationship with Peters was too strong to be soured over the player taking advantage of the time and opportunity the revamped NBA Draft early entry rules gave him to weigh his options.

“I wanted to be available for him. I knew his goals. I wanted him to know that we would do everything in our power to help him reach those goals [at Valpo],” Lottich, who joined the staff as one of Drew’s three assistant coaches the same season that Peters entered as a freshman, told NBCSports.com. “But, ultimately, we cared about him. If he felt that he could reach those goals at other places, then we wanted to help him with that.”

What that led to was two months of stress. Who is he working out with? Who is making back-channel calls to his former coaches? Are opposing staffs tampering? Will he get an invite to the NBA Draft combine? Would he settle for guaranteed money to simply get an invite to a camp? Is the D-League or overseas really an option?

Fast forward to late-May. Lottich, who was officially hired on April 7th, the same day that Peters declared for the draft without hiring an agent, had watched the face of Crusaders basketball for the last three years workout with Utah. And Houston. And Boston. He watched him get passed over by the people sending out combine invites and still get another workout in Denver. He watched him pull his name out of the draft and bunker down with his family and girlfriend.

And he watched Peters’ name pop up on his phone.

“I’m coming back to Valpo.”

The wave of relief meant Lottich’s celebration was muted: a silent fist-bump for his wife.

——

In theory, up-transferring — leaving a program in the low- or mid-major ranks for a school that plays in one of the major conferences — is great. More exposure to professional scouts. More chances to play on TV. Larger home crowds and wilder road environments.

That all looks good on paper.

In reality, it’s not the picture-perfect transition that it seems.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 29: Alec Peters #25 of the Valparaiso Crusaders dunks against the Brigham Young Cougars during their NIT Championship Semifinal game at Madison Square Garden on March 29, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

While the up-transfers may have visions of playing a starring role in front of 10,000 screaming fans, the truth is that high-major college coaches aren’t raiding the lower levels of college basketball looking for a player to build their team around. They’re looking for a piece, a kid that has a proven ability to play a role that’s left void on their current roster.

Every up-transfer thinks they’re going to end up being a Joseph Young or Jordan Clarkson, the next DeAndre Kane or Damion Lee. Those guys are the exception. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of these former mid-major stars end up being forgettable pieces at the highest level of college hoops. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t good enough to be the leading scorer on a tournament team, but it does mean they weren’t used that way by their new coaching staff. They’ve invested time and money in recruiting, developing and ingraining their system in the kids already on the roster. They’re not throwing that away to give 15 shots a night in the Big Ten to someone because they averaged 15 points in the Big South.

That’s what made Peters’ situation so unique.

He could have followed Drew to Vanderbilt. He could have played in the SEC for a coach that knew the ins and outs of what he was capable of, a coach whose system Peters was already fluent in. He could have been the star of a team that isn’t as far away from being tournament-worthy as their record — and departures from — last season would seem to indicate.

We’ve never seen that situation play out. The closest we’ve ever come to it was Doug McDermott and Creighton. McDermott was a two-time All-American as a junior playing in the Missouri Valley. A likely second round pick, he opted to return to school for his final season of eligibility, helping to usher the Bluejays into the new-look Big East. Playing in the same system for the same coach with the same teammates in a new league, McDermott had one of the greatest seasons we’ve ever seen from a collegian, becoming the consensus National Player of the Year and a lottery pick.

The irony there?

Two NBA scouts told NBCSports.com that McDermott is the guy that Peters, who averaged 18.5 points, 8.4 boards and shot better than 44 percent from three, should model his game after if he’s going to make it as an NBA player. It’s feedback that Peters said he heard from the front office personnel himself.

For those on the outside, it just made too much sense.

But what those on the outside didn’t realize is that Peters is too loyal to abandon his team to benefit himself. He didn’t do it back in his AAU days, when some of the biggest programs in the midwest — the St. Louis Eagles, the Mac Irvin Fire — tried to poach him from the Illinois Irish. He didn’t do it when there was a chance for him to leave Washington HS (Ill.) for IMG Academy. He sure as hell wasn’t about to leave Valpo now.

“There was a moment of consideration. It would have been stupid of me not to consider it after everything that had happened with the coaching change,” Peters told NBCSports.com in an interview last week. “With all that went on in [those two months] it felt like a year that went by.”

“After I pulled my name out I took a few days and kind of relaxed and said, ‘OK, before everything gets crazy, let’s take a few days.’ Me and my dad sat down and we listed everything, pro and con. Before I came out of high school we did the same thing. All the data on everything. All the stats on what it’s like to be a guy that transfers up to a bigger school. I just tried to be as best informed as possible before I made my decision.”

Ultimately, the decision was relatively easy.

LOS ANGELES, CA. JULY 26, 2016. The Academy. (Mandatory photo credit: Jon Lopez/Nike).
(Jon Lopez/Nike).

“The ultimate determination for him was that he couldn’t bring his teammates with him,” Lottich said. “He’s close with his teammates. He’s the leader of this team. He’s been the face of Valpo basketball for the last two, maybe even three years. He’s the most famous player at Valpo since Bryce Drew. He has the opportunity to leave here as the all-time leading scorer and rebounder. I know he wants to win an NCAA tournament game at Valpo, and we have a team that he has an opportunity to do that.”

And in the end, that mattered more to Peters than a chance to play in the ACC or the Big Ten. That mattered more than following his former head coach to Nashville.

Part of the reason was that, during his visits with NBA front offices, he was told that man-handling Horizon League competition said just as much about his ability as playing well for a bigger program.

“I was able to ask them straight up, as honest as they can be with me: ‘Do you see me [in the NBA], and if this isn’t my year what do I gotta do for next year to make it mine and be a first round pick and make a roster?’,” Peters said.

Their answers?

“Be a guy at a mid-major school next year that’s dominating at my level. Show that I can put up 20 and 10 and dominate a game against a bigger opponents when we play them. Lead my team farther into the NCAA tournament this year.”

In other words, they told him that staying at Valpo not only wouldn’t hurt his chances of getting to the NBA, but having a monster season might actually help more than being a solid piece for a good team at a higher level.

Peters told NBCSports.com all this while at the Nike Skills Academy, a three-day bootcamp in Los Angeles that afforded Peters the chance to workout with the best trainers, some of the best college players and all of Nike’s best non-Team USA affiliated talents. He went head-to-head with the likes of Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson and Julius Randle, players that play the same position he’ll end up playing in the professional ranks. He more than held his own, and at times he was one of the best players on the floor.

And he did all of that in front of NBA scouts and front office executives from almost every team.

Peters’ physical limitations are never going away. He’ll always be a below-average athlete by NBA standards. There will always be questions about his ability to defend or about what position he will play. But in a league that value the ability to shoot the ball more than ever, a guy that spent those three days raining pick-and-pop threes and spacing the floor is going to generate interest.

Regardless of what conference he plays in.

“Ultimately,” Peters said, “I don’t think there’s any better place for me to be.”

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 31: Tyler Cavanaugh #34 of the George Washington Colonials guards Alec Peters #25 of the Valparaiso Crusaders during their NIT Championship game at Madison Square Garden on March 31, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

No. 18 Gonzaga withstands scare from Kent St for 73-66 win

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
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SPOKANE, Wash. – Drew Timme scored 29 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, and No. 18 Gonzaga closed the game on an 11-0 run to rally past Kent State 73-66 on Monday night.

The nation’s longest home win streak was extended to 69 games but not without a major scare by the Golden Flashes. Kent State led 66-62 with 3:38 left after Miryne Thomas’ 3-pointer, but the Bulldogs tightened on the defensive end and got a handful of big plays offensively to hold off the Flashes.

Julian Strawther added 14 points, including a 3-pointer with 3:19 left that started Gonzaga’s decisive run. Timme’s spinning basket in the lane with 2:29 left gave Gonzaga (6-3) the lead, and he added a key defensive play blocking Sincere Carry’s layup attempt at the other end.

Timme was fouled and split free throws with 1:55 left, but Malachi Smith grabbed the offensive rebound and his three-point play gave the Bulldogs a 71-66 lead. It was Smith’s first basket of the game.

“(Timme) was heroic. He wasn’t really looking for the ball much early and wasn’t demanding it . he was splitting the defense and scoring in a variety of ways like he does,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “To end up with 17 boards is monster and we needed every one of them.”

Nolan Hickman added 10 points and seven rebounds for the Bulldogs, who held a 43-30 advantage on the boards. It was just the second home game inside the McCarthey Athletic Center for Gonzaga and first since Nov. 7 against North Florida.

Thomas led Kent State (6-3) with 16 points, including four 3-pointers. Malique Jacobs added 11 points and Carry, who was averaging 18.5 points per game, was held to 10.

“I think in the second half we moved the ball well, we got some turnovers, got some easy shots and was able to give us a lead playing a great team and great program. . Unfortunately we couldn’t finish it off. Give them a lot of credit for that,” Kent State head coach Rob Senderoff said.

Kent State nearly pulled off a surprising upset on the road for the second time in two weeks but couldn’t withstand Gonzaga’s late surge. Kent State led No. 1 Houston by one-point with less than a minute to go nine days ago in Houston but couldn’t make the plays in the closing seconds to finish off the upset in a 49-44 loss.

“Coach Few has told us all week that this is a great team that could go to the Sweet 16. . We knew what they were capable of and we weren’t taking them lightly and we knew it was going to be a dog fight,” Strawther said.

JERSEY RETIRED

Kelly Olynyk’s No. 13 jersey number was retired in front of a sellout crowd. Olynyk played for Gonzaga from 2009-13 and led the Bulldogs to its first ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament while earning first team AP All-American status as a senior.

“You’re almost speechless,” Olynyk said. “It’s just such an honor, especially with the names that you’re up beside. They’re unbelievable players.”

BIG PICTURE

Kent State: The Golden Flashes lost their third game of the season and their second against a ranked opponent. Kent State has three non-conference games left before beginning Mid-American Conference play at home against Western Michigan.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs bounced back from a one-point loss to No. 12 Baylor last week with the win. All three of Gonzaga’s losses are to teams ranked in the top 12 of the AP Top 25.

UP NEXT:

Kent State: At Cleveland State on Saturday.

Gonzaga: Host in-state rival Washington on Friday.

Preseason No. 1 North Carolina drops out of AP Top 25

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
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Houston and Texas remain firmly entrenched atop The Associated Press men’s college basketball poll, while preseason No. 1 North Carolina has dropped out entirely after a fourth straight loss.

The Cougars earned 37 of 62 first-place votes in the poll, extending the program’s first stay at No. 1 since the “Phi Slama Jama” days in the 1980s for another week. Houston (8-0) beat Norfolk State and Saint Mary’s in its first week at the top.

“I don’t dwell on it,” coach Kelvin Sampson said last week about the No. 1 ranking. “We’re not running around here pushing our chest out, thinking we’re something we’re not.”

The Longhorns received 14 first-place votes. No. 3 Virginia got three votes and No. 4 Purdue got the remaining eight.

Connecticut (9-0) climbed to No. 5, the program’s highest ranking since early in the 2011-12 season. Other than the top five, there are three other teams in the AP Top 25 that are undefeated (No. 11 Auburn, No. 13 Maryland and No. 23 Mississippi State).

SWIFT FALL

North Carolina is only the sixth team to go from preseason No. 1 to unranked since at least the 1961-62 season, most recently with Michigan State during the 2019-20 season.

Of that group, the Tar Heels had the swiftest exit from the poll to start the season (four weeks) excet for UCLA in 1965-66. The Bruins fell out of the poll after just three weeks back when only 10 teams were ranked.

Ranked No. 18 last week, the Tar Heels (5-4) l ost their fourth straight game over the weekend at Virginia Tech while playing without banged-up big man Armando Bacot. They appeared on a single ballot this week from the 62-member panel that votes on the AP Top 25.

“I told them also that I’m not panicked, I’m not any of that,” coach Hubert Davis said afterward. “I’m convinced we’re going to be a great basketball team by the end of the season.”

Last year’s Tar Heels were on the bubble to even make the NCAA Tournament well into February in Davis’ debut season. They went on a final-month tear all the way to the NCAA championship game before falling to Kansas.

THE TOP TIER

Kansas climbed to No. 6, followed by three Southeastern Conference teams in Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas. For the Volunteers and Crimson Tide, it marked their first appearances inside the top 10 this year. Arizona rounded out the top 10, falling six spots after a loss at Utah.

RISING

No. 13 Maryland had the biggest jump of the week, vaulting nine spots after wins against Louisville and Illinois last week in the Terrapins’ first year under Kevin Willard. That marks the program’s highest ranking since pushing into the top 10 during the 2019-20 season.

Tennessee was next up with a six-spot climb, while No. 11 Auburn rose four spots.

In all, 13 teams climbed from last week.

SLIDING

Creighton had the week’s biggest fall, tumbling 14 spots to No. 21 after losing at Texas and at home to Nebraska last week.

No. 12 Baylor fell six spots after a loss to Marquette, though the Bears responded by beating Gonzaga on Friday in a rematch of the 2021 NCAA championship game won by Baylor.

The Zags, now No. 18, fell four spots to their lowest ranking since checking in at No. 20 on Christmas Day in 2017.

In all, four teams slid from last week.

STATUS QUO

Beyond the top three, No. 25 Ohio State remained in place after a tough loss at No. 15 Duke last week.

WELCOME

No. 23 Mississippi State and No. 24 TCU were the new additions to the poll, with the Bulldogs (8-0) earning their first AP Top 25 ranking under first-year coach Chris Jans since January 2019.

The Horned Frogs were ranked 14th and 15th, respectively, in the first two polls before falling out for two weeks.

FAREWELL (FOR NOW)

In addition to UNC, Michigan State (No. 20) fell out after losses to Notre Dame and Northwestern.

CONFERENCE WATCH

The SEC led the way with six ranked teams, including No. 16 Kentucky. The Big Ten and Big 12 each had five ranked teams, followed by two each for the Atlantic Coast, Pac-12 and Big East conferences.

The American Athletic, West Coast and Mountain West conferences each had one.

Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer tops women’s AP Top 25 appearances

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer stands atop The Associated Press women’s basketball poll with the most appearances all time, breaking a tie with the late Pat Summitt.

VanDerveer’s Cardinal remained No. 2 behind top-ranked South Carolina, giving her 619 weeks with one of her teams in the AP Top 25: 592 weeks with Stanford and 27 with Ohio State when she was in charge of that program. Summitt’s 618 weeks in the poll all came with Tennessee.

The Hall of Fame coach downplayed the achievement.

“Fortunate to be here for 36 years. We have great players and have been successful,” VanDerveer said. “I don’t pay attention to (records). People bring it up and I’m like `OK, great.”‘

Louisville fell out of the Top 25 for the first time since 2016, a span of 127 weeks. That was the fifth longest active streak. The Cardinals (5-4) started the season ranked seventh and have struggled to find consistency this year, dropping their last two games to Ohio State and Middle Tennessee.

They are the third preseason top 10 team to fall out of the poll, joining Texas (this week) and Tennessee (last week). Before this year, only 10 preseason top 10 teams had fallen out of the rankings at some point during the year since the AP Top 25 became a writers’ poll in 1994-95.

Even more rare has been a preseason top five school dropping out. Only five teams had done that prior to this year and none before January. Tennessee was the last to do it, starting the 2015-16 season at No. 4 before falling out of the rankings Feb. 22.

Now Texas and Tennessee are both out before the New Year.

“Two factors are at play here. One of them is more parity with more good teams,” said Rebecca Lobo, the former UConn star, ESPN analyst and Top 25 voter. “The other factor at play is the transfer portal. I think those three teams all have multiple players who start who weren’t in their program a year ago. It’s a reflection that you can’t just assemble teams and right away expect them to be good. I think all those teams will in the poll by the end of the season.”

Ohio State moved up to No. 3 after, the Buckeyes’ best ranking since Nov. 30, 2009, when they also were third. Indiana and Notre Dame round out the top five.

UConn fell three spots to sixth with Virginia Tech seventh, the best ranking ever for the school. North Carolina and N.C. State were tied in eighth and Iowa State is 10th.

RANKED RAZORBACKS

Arkansas (10-0) vaulted into the poll at No. 21. The Razorbacks have a difficult month ahead with games against No. 18 Creighton and a tournament in San Diego that has Oregon, South Florida and Ohio State.

“I do think we know a lot about our team,” Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors said.

He was also happy his team made the poll as every sports team on campus that has played this year has been ranked, including football, men’s basketball, soccer and cross country.

“We didn’t want to be the team that stops that streak,” he said..

FALLING LOUISVILLE

The Cardinals had been ranked ever week since Jan. 11, 2016. That was the same season they started the year at No. 8 before falling out on Nov. 30, the earliest a top 10 team had fallen out of the poll until last week. Things got better for Louisville as the Cardinals finished that regular season 24-6 and went 15-1 in the ACC.

HISTORIC WEEK

With Louisville, Texas and Tennessee all out of the Top 25, it marks only the second time in the poll’s history that none of those three teams were ranked. The only other time was the first-ever poll in 1976.

COMING AND GOING

Oklahoma and Kansas State also returned to the Top 25 this week, coming in at No. 23 and No. 24. Marquette dropped out after losing to Seton Hall.

Northwestern beats No. 20 Michigan State in Big Ten opener

Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK
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EAST LANSING, Mich. – Boo Buie scored 20 points and Northwestern beat No. 20 Michigan State 70-63 on Sunday night in the Big Ten opener for both teams.

Chase Audige added 15 points and Ty Berry had 13 for Northwestern (6-2), which ended a two-game losing streak.

“Needless to say, this was a huge win for us,” coach Chris Collins said. “Coming off our performance in the ACC-Big Ten challenge, where we lost badly on our home floor (to Pittsburgh), I was really pleased with our resolve the past couple days.”

Mady Sossoko and A.J. Hoggard each had 12 points for Michigan State (5-4) and Joey Hauser added 10. The Spartans have lost two in a row, falling to Notre Dame earlier in the week.

Hoggard cut Northwestern’s lead to 64-63 with 46 seconds left. After a timeout, Buie scored on a layup with 23 seconds left.

“We got out-toughed,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Northwestern took the lead late in the first half on a layup by Buie and never relinquished it, leading by as many as nine points.

“We put (the loss to Pittsburgh) under the rug,” Buie said. “We turned the page, just like we do with any win or loss. The season is so long you can’t get caught up on one single game. Just like tonight. We’re super happy with the win, but after tonight it’s over. You can’t dwell on things.”

The Wildcats went 21 of 24 on free throws, while the Spartans were 9 of 12.

“I was concerned about a knockout punch early,” Collins said. ‘I knew they would be revved up after the Notre Dame loss. They hit us early and got a seven-point lead, and then we settled down.”

UP NEXT

Northwestern: Hosts Prairie View A&M on Dec. 11

Michigan State: At Penn State on Wednesday night.

Miles, No. 7 Notre Dame women beat No. 3 UConn; Fudd hurt

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Olivia Miles had 21 points and eight rebounds for No. 7 Notre Dame, and UConn star Azzi Fudd suffered a knee injury in a collision with a teammate, as the Fighting Irish handed the third-ranked Huskies their first loss of the season, 74-60 on Sunday.

“I think she’ll be all right,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said afterwards of Fudd, who went into the day averaging 24.0 points, but finished scoreless on two shots over 13 minutes.

Fudd exited in the final minute of the first quarter after teammate Aaliyah Edwards fell on her. She returned midway through the second period to play four hobbled minutes, but sat the rest of the way as a precaution, according to Auriemma.

Maddy Westbeld had a season-high 17 points and nine rebounds for Notre Dame (7-1), which bounced back from a 74-72 loss to No. 20 Maryland three days earlier.

“I think Thursday’s loss really fueled us today,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “We learned a lot from that game. We have incredible scorers on our team, a lot of balance offensively, but it’s our defense that’s gonna win games, so that was our focus the last 48 hours. (The players) took the challenge and came out and played with heart and defensive intensity. I feel like if we can play that way, we can beat anyone in the country.”

Notre Dame shot 56% from the field while limiting the Huskies to 37%.

“We played very badly (Thursday), but we were still two points away,” Miles said, “so it’s kind of scary what we can do when we play really well.”

Led by Miles, the Irish roared to a 41-24 lead by intermission, outscoring the Huskies 30-11 over the final 11 minutes of the first half.

Miles scored 13 of Notre Dame’s 18 first-quarter points, going 6 of 7 from the field. Westbeld provided her scoring punch after averaging 5.2 points over her previous five outings.

Lou Lopez Senechal led UConn (6-1) with 21 points. Edwards added 14.

“We didn’t win the rebound battle and that hurt us,” said Auriemma, whose club was outboarded 39-26 and outscored in the paint. 46-16. “We just didn’t have enough scoring on the court and enough people playing at a real high level to get enough buckets when we needed them.”

The Huskies got as close at 49-44 at the 3:44 mark of the third quarter, but the Irish stretched their lead back to as high as 70-53 at the midway mark of the fourth period.

Notre Dame ended a seven-game head-to-head losing streak against UConn in regular-season play, prevailing for the first time since a triple-overtime decision in March 2013.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies faced a top-10 opponent for the fourth time this season, but this one was their first true road game. If Fudd’s injury doesn’t turn out to be serious, UConn ought to still have a chance to do what it’s done for decades: craft a resume that will make them a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Notre Dame: The Irish, coming back from that loss at the buzzer to Maryland, showed that Thursday’s outcome may just be a blip on their promising season. Notre Dame matched last season’s win over No. 3 North Carolina State for the highest-ranked team it has beaten in its third year under Ivey.

UP NEXT

UConn: The Huskies host Princeton on Thursday before visiting Maryland next Sunday.

Notre Dame: The Irish have a couple apparent mismatches coming up as they visit Lafayette (2-7) on Thursday and host Merrimack (1-6) on Saturday.