In Valparaiso, Terps will see a similar team on Friday

Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus on the reaction of the Maryland men's basketball team during the NCAA selection show. (Kevin Richardson/BSMG)

The team Maryland is scheduled to face Friday in the 2015 NCAA tournament in Columbus, Ohio, came into the season thought to be too inexperienced to be competitive in its league.

As the season went on, and as injuries to key players piled up, the team's fourth-year coach had to change his rotation to have a chance to play in the tournament.


Sound familiar, Terps fans?

More than just having a similar record, No. 13 seed Valparaiso (28-5) will be seeing a little of itself when it plays No. 4 seed Maryland (27-6) at Nationwide Arena.

The Crusaders, making their second NCAA tournament appearance under former star player and current coach Bryce Drew, lost their starting point guard for the season with a knee injury last summer and his backup for a month during the season, yet wound up winning the Horizon League.

"I'm in awe of what guys have done with our team this year, with all the adversity we've faced," Drew said in a teleconference Monday. "We're the least experienced team in our league [Horizon] this year. If someone had told me we'd be in this position, I might not have believed them just because of our inexperience and the injuries that we had."

Two years ago, the Crusaders were in a similar spot, when as a No. 14 seed, they faced No. 3 seed Michigan State. With a mostly veteran team, Valparaiso lost to the Spartans, 65-54, at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich.

"We have completely new group that is going to be going through it for the first time," Drew said. "The team has a different feel than the one two years ago. We had six seniors and it was kind of their last time around. This group we start a couple of underclassmen, we play a lot of younger guys.

"It's kind of [a] different outlook. From a coaching perspective, obviously the second time you go through things you learn some things you may have changed the first time. We've made some adjustments to our schedule and in our preparation this week."

Adam Amin, who does college basketball play-by-play for ESPN and is a 2009 graduate of Valparaiso, said the Crusaders are better than the 2012-13 team despite their relative youth.

"I think expectations weren't that high, I think everyone assumed that [Wisconsin] Green Bay would win the league," Amin said. "I think these teams are similar in that regard, they've exceeded expectations, but I don't think we were shocked it."

Amin, who worked the first Maryland-Indiana game when the Terps were blown out by 19 points at Assembly Hall, said the Crusaders have turned into a "pretty good defensive team" led by 6-10, 245-pound center Vashil Fernandez, a Jamaican who went from sitting at the end of the bench two years to being Horizon League defensive player of the year.

The backcourt of junior Darrian Walker and freshman Tevonn Walker, who are related only by their intensity on defense, don't get the same attention as senior Dez Wells and freshman Melo Trimble, but have done a good job slowing down the best guards in the Horizon League. Green Bay guard Keifer Sykes, projected as a potential NBA player, shot a combined 11-for-30 against the Crusaders in three straight losses this season.

"Valpo is going to have to have one of their best defensive games of the season to stop those guys," Amin said of Maryland's guards. "If [Jake] Layman has a great game, I feel Maryland is very difficult to stop. If Layman is having a subpar game, if [Jared] Nickens is having a subpar game, I feel Valpo can stay in there."

Drew will be experiencing a similar scenario to one he saw as a senior at Valparaiso, when his 3-pointer from the right wing off a neatly designed last-second inbounds play led to one of the most memorable shots in NCAA tournament history.

Known simply as "The Shot," Drew took a tip from a teammate and launched the game-winner to help the then No. 13 seeded Crusaders upset No. 4 seed Mississippi in the opening round in 1998.


Asked if his legacy in the NCAA tournament could take away from what his players are trying to accomplish or motivate them even more, Drew said, "For the players' perspective, I don't think it has any bearings on the game at all.

"Maybe every kid on our roster didn't know about that play until he got here," Drew said. "I'm sure the Maryland players are the same way. Maybe from a fan who follows the NCAA tournament they might think a little better about us."

Not that Drew minds hearing about it or seeing it replayed as much as it does this time of year.

"It doesn't really get brought up that much until this of year, unless we're blessed and doing well," Drew said. "It's not even in our recruiting presentation that we put out. …For myself, I do not get tired about talking about it because it was such a special time. It does bring back good memories."

The Crusaders can't create another one come Friday, against a team that has at times struggled against competition considered to be a level — or more — down from the Terps.

Drew, whose familiarity with Maryland stems from the fact that his brother, Baylor coach Scott Drew, coached against Mark Turgeon when he was at Texas A&M, knows how difficult a task the Crusaders have in Columbus. He doesn't believe the Terps will use being snubbed as a No. 3 seed and then placed in the same bracket as top-ranked Kentucky will make a difference on Friday.

"I can't speak for their team, I'm sure everyone thought they'd be a 3 seed, we thought we'd probably be a 12 seed," Drew said. "Coach Turgeon is too good a coach and they got too good of players. They're going to be ready to go on Friday regardless, what seed they are and where they're playing."


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