Valpo hopes to have the last laugh in NIT’s Final Four

We’ve all heard the potshots that have been directed at the once-proud National Invitation Tournament over the last several years.

How “NIT” stands for the “Not-Invited Tournament,” since the 32 schools that comprise the field were not extended NCAA bids.

A real knee-slapper, that one.

And we’ve heard how the winner of the tournament is just the 69th-best team in college basketball, since 68 make the Big Dance.

Which also leaves your sides aching.

Never mind that the NCAA selection committee doesn’t — ahem — always get it right. Never mind that upsets regularly occur in one-bid leagues’ postseason tournaments, giving lesser teams an unexpected opportunity and deserving clubs an unwanted detour.

Never mind any of that. There are those who nonetheless view the NIT as a joke.

Others take it far more seriously. Consider, for example, Valparaiso, the top seed in this year’s NIT. After winning the Horizon League regular-season championship by three games, the Crusaders were bounced from the conference tournament by Green Bay in the quarterfinals, preventing them from following up last year’s NCAA appearance.

They have responded by recording double-figure victories in the NIT over Texas Southern, Florida State and Saint Mary’s to improve to 29-6 and advance to Tuesday’s semifinals against Brigham Young (26-10), a 7 p.m. ET tip in Madison Square Garden.

That will be followed at approximately 9 p.m. ET by the other semi, between George Washington (26-10) and San Diego State (28-9), with the winners meeting for the title Thursday at 7 p.m. ET back in the Garden.

So yes, this is serious business for Valpo.

As star forward Alec Peters told ASN last week, “When we first found out that we didn’t make the NCAA tournament, we had two choices. 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.”

They have reason to play. There are reasons to pay attention, too:
1. Be Drew to your school
Pitt hired former Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings as its new coach on Sunday. He replaces Jamie Dixon, who departed for TCU.

Curious thing is, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, citing anonymous sources, reported one day earlier that Valpo coach Bryce Drew (not to mention GW’s Mike Lonergan) was set to interview for the job with the Panthers.

Instead, the 41-year-old Drew remains at a place where he has gone 123-48 in five years. As a player he made the most memorable shot in school history, a last-second 3-pointer to beat Mississippi in a 1998 NCAA game. He has followed his father Homer and older brother Scott as the school’s head coach.
2. A-No. 1, king of the hill, top of the heap
Peters averages 18.5 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 51.1% from the floor, 44.8% from the 3-point line and 85.2% from the foul line. A repeat selection as an All-Horizon first-teamer, he has been especially good of late, averaging 26.6 points and 9.7 rebounds over his last seven games.

He will also be making his first trip to New York City.

“I hope it overwhelms me and I have to take a step back,” he told the Chicago Tribune, referring specifically to MSG. “Our coaches have told us how magical it is — that's the word they've used.

“Maybe my expectations are too high, but I'm expecting it to be cool.”
3. Centered
Hard to say if center Vashil Fernandez is more impressive on the court or off it. A married father of one, the native Jamaican earned his undergrad degree in international business in May 2014, his masters in international commerce and policy a year later and is studying toward his second masters, in international economics and finance.

He was also named the conference Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season, and leads the nation with an average of 3.3 blocks per game.

Other than that, he doesn’t have a thing going for him.
4. Foreign matters
The Crusaders have three other foreign-born players in their rotation besides Fernandez (Jamaica) in sophomore guard Tevonn Walker (Canada), sophomore forward David Skara (Croatia) and junior guard Shane Hammink (The Netherlands).

Hammink’s dad, Geert, was a first-round pick of the Orlando Magic in 1993. While he played just eight games in the NBA, he logged 11 professional seasons, the bulk of them overseas.

Shane, who spent his first two collegiate seasons at LSU before transferring, is averaging 8.9 points a game, fourth-most on the team. He also nailed a 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds left to lift Valpo over Green Bay in its regular-season finale.
5. About the opponent
BYU, led by senior guard Chase Fischer (18.3), freshman guard Nick Emery (16.2), senior guard Kyle Collinsworth (15.2) and junior forward Kyle Davis (12.1), averages a healthy 84 points a game.

That figures to make the Cougars a stiff test for a Valparaiso team that allows its opponents to shoot just 38.3% from the floor, making the Crusaders the nation’s third-stingiest outfit.

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