Since joining the Horizon League for the 2007-08 season Valparaiso has never finished better than 10-8 in conference. That happened last season, and the Crusaders still managed to finish 15-17 overall. This season though they're 14-5, 6-1 in the conference, and in first place. They've done it despite playing five of their first seven league games on the road and have played all of the top teams in the conference at least once.
So how have they done it? Defense. Yes, the team that finished last season with the 304th rated defense in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy currently leads the Horizon League in points allowed per possession. And while Homer Drew's team did benefit from playing the bottom tier of the conference at first, they've now held their own against some much better competition while ascending to the top of the conference. Take a look for yourself after the jump.
Valparaiso's Horizon League games with points allowed per possession:
- @UIC - .874
- @Loyola - .849
- @Butler - 1.185
- vs. Youngstown State - .789
- vs. Cleveland State - .901
- @Wright State - .986
- @Detroit - .958
That's pretty impressive. Besides the blip against the Bulldogs at Hinkle Fieldhouse, the Crusaders have been able to hold their opponents to less than ideal results. Combine that with an offense that includes Brandon Wood and Cory Johnson and you've got yourself the recipe for a winner.
How is Valparaiso doing it? Well the first part is obvious - the Crusaders are making it difficult for teams to hit baskets. They've allowed an average effective field goal percentage of 43.8 percent during conference play. That's mostly because Valparaiso is locking down the perimeter. Through seven games the Crusaders have allowed 27.0 percent of opponents' three-point attempts to go down, which is first in the conference.
It's also interesting to note that even though Valparaiso has played five road games, its allowed free throw rate in conference is lower than its overall free throw rate this season. Playing in hostile conference gyms the Crusaders are still preventing opponents from getting to the free throw line.
This is good, because it helps to offset Valparaiso's major weakness - allowing too many offensive rebounds. Opponents have grabbed 37.4 percent of the available rebounds while the Crusaders are playing defense. Only Wright State is worse during conference play in that category. That number was especially terrible against Detroit as the Titans grabbed 17 offensive rebounds on 31 missed shots, but still managed to score just 68 points in 71 possessions. (And that becomes even more mind boggling when you realize that Detroit also attempted 35 free throws and made 29.)
But that's what happens when a team shoots just 38 percent from the field overall and just 1-9 from three. Plus, as everyone in the Horizon League is finding out, Detroit in anomalous team. With its big forwards and lack of offensive structure, the Titans do things well, but can't seem to put all the pieces into the puzzle.
We'll see if the Crusaders' defensive stand continues, but if it does it might be enough to carry Valparaiso and Drew back to the NCAA Tournament.
Now, about that loss to Toledo...