Valparaiso forward Alec Peters’ best work comes on a basketball court, but is rooted in a tract of land in central Illinois. The Peters grow corn and soybeans, and raise cows, on a 4,000-acre farm that his grandfather owned and the family still runs in Washington, Ill., a small town east of Peoria.
Alec, an active kid with an athletic streak, didn’t spend as much time on the farm as some siblings and cousins while growing up. Still, he is plenty comfortable around crops and livestock and farm equipment. He possesses a keen appreciation for building a life around the land and the lessons it teaches.
“There’s no time for half-doing anything,” Peters said. “You either work at it as hard as you can or you’re not going to work at it at all. My grandparents raised my dad and my dad raised me. What I learned working the farm carried over into playing basketball, where every little detail matters and every ounce of work and pride that you put into it is going to matter.”
Peters, a 6-9, 230-pound junior, quietly and relentlessly works toward becoming perhaps the best player in Valpo history, while the Crusaders (29-6) work toward history of their own. The Horizon League regular-season champs advanced to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York with a 60-44 victory against St. Mary’s of the West Coast Conference on Tuesday night.
The Crusaders shook off the disappointment of being left out of the NCAA field, dispatching Texas Southern (84-73) and Florida State (81-69) in their first two NIT games. They play BYU on Tuesday in the NIT’s Final Four.
“When we first found out that we didn’t make the NCAA tournament, we had two choices,” Peters said. “Either give up on the year, or make a run at this and show everybody why we should have been in the NCAA Tournament. I think that’s where the chip on our shoulder comes from on this team.”
Valpo fields an experienced team that has length and balance, and that squeezes opponents on defense. The Crusaders are 14th nationally in defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced statistics. They are eighth in effective field goal percentage defense, a combination of 2- and 3-point shooting, and fourth in 2-point shooting percentage defense (.416). They are plus-9.3 in rebound margin and were a staggering plus-13 on the boards in Horizon League play.
Senior Vashil Fernandez is the two-time conference Defensive Player of the Year and a quality rim protector at 6-10, witness his 105 blocks and 7.4 rebounds per game. Senior Keith Carter (10.2 ppg, 148 assists) is an effective point guard. Seven players average between five and 10 points per game, and five other players in the regular rotation stand at least 6-7.
“We’ve got guys who get along really well,” Valpo coach Bryce Drew said. “We have really good chemistry, on the court and off the court. We have guys who have embraced their roles and understand what they do best and how to contribute.”
It doesn’t hurt that the Crusaders also have one of the more productive offensive players in the country. Peters, a two-time all-league performer, is the leading scorer (18.5 ppg) and rebounder (8.4 rpg). He shoots nearly 51 percent from the field, 45 percent from 3-point range and 85 percent from the foul line. He was the first player in Valpo history to reach 1,000 career points as a sophomore. He is fifth on the career scoring list (1,632 points) and is on pace to break his head coach’s school record for career points (2,142).
“Even from an early age, you somehow knew he was going to play the sport well for a long period of time,” said his father, Jeff Peters. “You didn’t know he would be where he is now, but he had a feel for the game you don’t see very often.”
Jeff Peters took over the area’s youth league basketball operation, in part to aid his two sons’ development. He ran clinics for local coaches, usually with Alec demonstrating drills and practice regimens well beyond his years. Father and son spent countless hours at the gym, on Sundays and holidays, and studied college coaching videos.
“I tell people that he was a very willing kid,” Jeff said. “He never would say no. I’d say, we’re going to do this, and he’d say, OK, let’s go. Looking back, 99% of kids probably wouldn’t have been able to handle it. I think he learned early on that he had to put in the work if he was going to get to where he wanted. He might not be the most athletic kid out there. Other kids might be quicker or able to jump over him, but he was going to find a way to outwork you.”
Good as he’s been all season, Peters picked up his game a notch recently. In the past six games, he averaged 27.6 points and 10 rebounds. He shot 53 percent from the field, 46 percent from 3-point range and 86% from the line.
“I have great teammates and great coaches who have been setting me up for success all season long,” Peters said. “The team is starting to come together a lot more. It’s been balance on our team that’s been helping me. When other guys are shooting or rebounding or doing more, it opens up a lot of things for me to have more freedom. I give credit to them. They set the screens. They do the majority of the work. All I have to do is take the ball and put it in the basket.”
Indeed, Drew said that Peters’ recent surge coincides with improved play from Carter, who is running the offense well and getting players in proper position. But he acknowledges that Peters puts in the work to permit success.
“He’s gotten better as the season’s gone on,” Drew said. “Every year, he’s taken a little step up. He’s worked on his speed and agility. He gets a little quicker and jumps a little higher.”
Peters still considers himself just a small-town kid who works hard at something he loves. He doesn’t consider himself special, nor does he seek the spotlight that accompanies the resume’ he’s building. He’s happy to help grow a program beyond its humble roots.
“This is the first time in a while we’ve had a postseason victory,” Peters said. “We want the program to be elevated into a light where it’s normal to win postseason games and normal to be playing deep into March.”