On the one hand, a championship will be won tonight -- something worth celebrating. Nets will be cut down. Trophies will be handed out. There are even story-lines to be exploited by the World-Wide Leader, whose flagship station is in the house for the first time in the history of the Athletics Recreation Center (ARC). Detroit's McCallum Father-Son duo versus coach Bryce Drew who once played for his father Homer and has now taken over for him. Like low-hanging fruit, it is hard to resist.
On the other hand -- and this has to win out over the above if our collective below-the-red-line mentality is to be maintained -- this is the Horizon League. This conference has scored at least one victory in the NCAA tournament each of the last seven years, to say nothing of making it all the way to the national title game the past two years. It is no longer acceptable to be satisfied with going to the NCAA tourney. Butler, Milwaukee, and Cleveland State (responsible for that seven year streak) have established the new mandate: get there AND win. Valpo has not been the NCAA tourney since 2004 (Detroit hasn't been since 1999), and they haven't won an NCAA tourney game since 1998. One or two bracketologists are predicting Valpo as a 14 seed if they win tonight. The rest predict a 15 seed. Either way, winning in the round of 64 is going to be long odds. But either way, a new team not named Butler, Milwaukee, or Cleveland State is expected to continue the tradition. Yes, a championship is to be won tonight, but it is a means to a much bigger end. It is not an end in and of itself. After tonight, there is still plenty of work left to be done.
Detroit has gotten to this point the hard way, beating Loyola on Tuesday, then Youngstown State on Friday, then Cleveland State on Saturday. They have been widely viewed within the Horizon League as frayed around the edges -- not the model of consistency, given to barking at each other, given to lapses in discipline. They missed out on their chance for a double bye when they lost a sizable lead at Cleveland State a week ago Thursday. Now they are on the biggest stage the Horizon League puts forth, at the home court of Valparaiso, who only had to play on Saturday and scored their most convincing victory over Butler to date, winning by 19. Detroit is the more athletic team, but can they harness their frayed edges and take down the host team who seems to be firing on all cylinders, or will they unravel?
Both student sections came ready to rock and roll. Valpo is on Spring Break, but they still managed to bring the heat. Detroit was equally well represented, as they have been throughout the extended weekend. If you're into omens, the home team emerged from the locker room first for the final time prior to the opening tip. The partisan crowd was still going crazy when the Titans came out, but it was kind of odd to see the role reversal.
Valpo started slow again, but Detroit had trouble taking advantage the way Butler did on Saturday. Before too long, Valpo was their old self, except for a some troubling unforced turnovers here and there, possibly a harbinger of things to come. Kevin Van Wijk asserted himself as he usually does, wreaking havoc and drawing fouls. Valpo slowly built a significant lead as the half wore on. It took Ray McCallum Jr. a bit longer to really get cooking, but that time would come and there would be no stopping him. Eventually Valpo extended their lead to 9, with Van Wijk hitting six straight free throws as Detroit kept losing track of him on defense. After a flurry of activity led to a steal and layup for Detroit, one of the crucial moments of the game happened: Kevin reinjured the same knee he hurt at Cleveland State two weeks ago. He had to go to the locker room for treatment.
Ryan Broekhoff won the Horizon League Player of the Year pretty handily, but what Valpo fans continually learned the hard way this year is that if Kevin Van Wijk is out injured, the Crusaders are far more beatable. Maybe we're just lucky we didn't have to learn how to win without Ryan, but Valpo fans were very nervous as Kevin limped to the locker room and were relieved to see him return later in the half. It did seem to me that Detroit began to seize their moment when Kevin went down. Gone was the low post player who drives opponents absolutely batty. That has always been a big loss, especially when coupled with cold shooting from behind the arc, as also happened in tonight's championship game. These two would ultimately prove to be a killer combination. The 18 turnovers didn't help, but long shooting droughts and limited effectiveness from Kevin very much contributed to the final outcome. To be fair, when he was lost early at Cleveland State, Valpo was able to complete an emphatic 59-41 win, so this the fact that they didn't survive tonight reflects negatively on those who tried to take up the slack.
Detroit inched closer, capitalizing on a couple of misses to close the half, and almost capitalized on an outright gift as Matt Kenney threw the ball right to Chase Simon, but his layup attempt failed to beat the buzzer. Detroit was able to go into the halftime down only three, 27-24. As a long time Valpo fan told me on his way to the concession stand, "I don't like the way we closed the half." I can't say I was overcome by a sense of foreboding, but I was not all that comfortable either.
Kevin Van Wijk did start the second half, and made a play or two, but a huge momentum shift quickly developed as Detroit really began to assert itself. First of all, the Titans started pressing full court and Valpo committed several turnovers. Detroit capitalized on them and Bryce Drew called 2 or 3 quick timeouts trying to stem the tide (with little impact). Secondly, now it was Detroit drawing fouls left and right. It was not hard to tell that Kevin was unable to help his team very much, his knee was impairing him so much. At one point, as his team grabbed the defensive rebound, I saw Ray McCallum Jr. take a bit of a spill and pick himself up slowly. While his team played 4-on-5, Ray picked himself up and headed down court and I could just feel what was going to happen. Sure enough, he joined the action in time to drain a 10-footer. It was going to be that kind of a half. That gave Detroit it's first lead since the opening minutes of the game, and they really never looked back. Valpo's offense began to sputter, and Detroit's continued to flex its muscle. For the first of several occasions, I noticed a big sign in red letters on display in the Detroit student section: "DESTINY".
To tell the truth, it is amazing that it took the Titans so long to put Valpo away. For example, Kevin Van Wijk had the ball at the top of the key, and for reasons passing understanding, Eli Holman committed his third foul guarding him. Then again, Valpo finally found their shooting touch from behind the arc and drained a few 3s to keep it close. Will Bogan's 3 to cut the lead to 2 after it had been as high as 6 spelled the end for Kevin Van Wijk as his sojourn across the lane to feed his teammate caused him to knock knees with a Titan. Back to the locker room again for more treatment.
Detroit took that punch and answered with a 3 of their own. Matt Kenney had a 3 ball go in and out, but Valpo remained 5 down at the third media timeout, and like the energizer bunny, Kevin Van Wijk returned to the floor. The two teams traded misses for a couple of minutes until Valpo committed a couple of unforced errors and Detroit starting going for the jugular. Before I could catch my breath they were up by 10 and Valpo called another timeout with 5:23 to go. Valpo switched to full court pressure and began fouling. At first Detroit was splitting free throws, but Valpo started shooting blanks again. The last one I remember was the most painful: an air-ball by Erik Buggs -- after Valpo fans had begun to make their way to the exits.
With the score 68-50 and the final seconds winding down, Valpo players stopped defending, conceding the inevitable. With about 3 seconds to go, for reasons only Ray McCallum Jr. will likely ever know, he looked up at the clock, then made a bee-line for basket and emphatically rose and dunked at the buzzer to make the final score 70-50.
In the highlights, you could see Ray McCallum Sr. looking back multiple times toward the Detroit basket as he waited to shake hands with Bryce Drew. Whether he was aghast at the poor sportsmanship by his son or eyeing the student section to see if they would storm the court will probably never be known.
Championship won -- check. Celebration -- a bit overdone. Either classless on the part of Ray Jr., or disrespectful of the mandate -- take your pick. He claims he thought the game was over already and just got caught up in the moment. An educated observer observed him eying the clock before heading for the jam, indicating fullness of purpose -- to add an exclamation point, an exclamation point that is very premature. His "apology" after the game indicates at the very least a sense of guilt about it, and that bodes well. If he gets back to business and holds off the celebrations until warranted (look to Butler for a primer on how this is done), I have no doubt he and his Titans will represent well. If they lose control of themselves emotionally, they could easily fall apart in the first round, and then the appropriate celebrations will be tinged with regret and feelings will be empty.
Meanwhile, his last second dunk left a sour taste in the mouth of Valpo fans (and players as well, I believe). All of Valpo's regulars will be back next year, and they have good memories. You want them to remember losing to you. You don't want them remembering you needlessly rubbing salt in their wound when the game was already over. It doesn't help when a few of your fans decide to ply their graphics arts skills to signage and houses in the town that hosted you -- events you don't necessarily have any control over, but which nevertheless add to the hurt feelings that will be aimed your way. Don't be shocked if your visit to the ARC next year is met with an unusually loud chorus of boos raining down on you all throughout the game. Anything more than that is not warranted of course, but that much is fair game. Of course, it does occur to me that you may well feed off that hostility, and if so, more power to you. Here's the thing: you may also be met with an unusual measure of intensity by the home team, who will make it their personal business to soundly -- though legally -- trounce you and send you home in a melancholy mood. Everybody is already waiting for each other in the tall grass as it is in this conference. Valpo will be extra motivated when they host you, and for what gain? Tonight's game was already decided. What did that last dunk accomplish? I suspect Ray Jr. is already asking himself that question, but he is going to be reminded of it again if Valpo beats Detroit next year, especially if they do so convincingly.
Hurt feelings with no return on investment is bad business. Good business is Detroit scoring a Red-Line upset in the round of 64 (they were just slotted as a 15 seed against #2 Kansas -- historically a very vulnerable high seed). Time to get to work, Ray Jr., et. al. Your journey has just begun. You really haven't accomplished anything yet.
That's life in the Horizon League. Save your exuberance for when it all ends. Tell you what -- make it to April, then strut. OK?
DETROIT 70, at VALPARAISO 50 03/06/2012
DETROIT 22-13 (11-7) -- E. Carter 8-17 4-7 23; J. Calliste 5-11 4-6 17; R. McCallum 10-16 1-1 21; C. Simon 2-10 0-0 5; L. Lowe 3-7 8-12 14; D. Foster 0-5 2-4 2; D. Anderson 1-4 2-2 4; E. Holman 2-2 1-2 5; E. Bruinsma 1-2 0-0 2; P. Boutte 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-57 18-27 70. VALPARAISO 22-11 (14-4) -- R. Broekhoff 5-9 2-2 13; E. Buggs 1-5 0-0 2; M. Kenney 2-6 3-4 7; W. Bogan 1-4 0-0 3; K. Van Wijk 4-6 9-10 17; J. Harris 1-5 2-2 4; R. Edwards 2-6 0-0 4; B. Boggs 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 16-44 16-18 50.
Three-point goals: UDM 4-15 (C. Simon 1-5; J. Calliste 3-7; R. McCallum 0-3), VALP 2-18 (W. Bogan 1-4; E. Buggs 0-2; B. Boggs 0-1; M. Kenney 0-3; R. Broekhoff 1-3; J. Harris 0-4; R. Edwards 0-1); Rebounds: UDM 30 (L. Lowe 10), VALP 32 (M. Kenney 10); Assists: UDM 12 (C. Simon 4), VALP 8 (R. Broekhoff 3); Total Fouls -- UDM 18, VALP 19; Fouled Out: UDM-None; VALP-B. Boggs.