Game #9-124: Valparaiso at Saint Louis BillikensDecember 2, 2012 4:30 pm
Today's game takes place under the shadow of death. Last night, as I waited to place my dinner order with 20-30 Valpo alumni from the St. Louis area in a private room at Joe Buck's Restaurant just a stone's throw from that ballpark where they play baseball in front of the so-called "Greatest fans in baseball", my Twitter feed updated with the news that Rick Majerus passed away. Such power in such a little app. I mentioned it to Athletic Director Mark LaBarbera, and later when coach Bryce Drew spoke to the gathering, he mentioned the sad news and asked everyone to keep the Majerus family in our prayers. For all I know, he had the news before he even spoke to Mark; he had just come from practice at Chaifetz Arena, so he may have heard it there.
Coach Drew, probably like most coaches who speak to alumni gatherings, spoke mostly of campus life this year, imploring alumni to come back and pay a visit ("Be sure to stop in at the ARC, we're very welcoming and would love to show you around."). His talking points on the team were littered with student-athlete superlatives - again, standard operating procedure for speaking to alumni gatherings. The Q&A period brought some basketball-related questions, most notably (and not surprisingly) on the health status of the team. I certainly hope all teams have their annual bouts with flu, pneumonia, etc., because I'd hate to think those viruses focus all of their hatred on my Valpo Crusaders, who seem to deal with this every single year. Their last game was over a week ago, so of course the news was spun in a positive direction with all that time to recuperate, though he did allow that Ryan Broekhoff might look a little pale today.
On rare occasions, death intrudes on basketball. More commonly, health issues intrude. Just one more challenge to overcome, I guess. Speaking of which, Erik Buggs was quoted in today's Post-Tribune
(one of the papers that covers the Valpo Crusaders) laying out the stark reality of today's game: "It's a huge opportunity. It's going to be a test to see exactly how good we actually are." I don't mean to suggest that Erik Buggs is a profound thinker: such truth has probably been drummed into him and to all players by their coaches. Who knows how seriously he takes that truth? But take it seriously, anyway. Coach Greg Kampe of the Oakland University Golden Grizzlies put it even more starkly for CollegeInsider.com
when talking about his philosophy of scheduling: "Playing teams like Michigan State and Tennessee helps us from a coaching standpoint in that those games completely expose our weaknesses." St. Louis is not a power conference team; they do not play above the Red Line. Still, they do play in a higher profile conference than the Horizon League (this is the conference Butler graduated to, after all). The Billikens may not expose Valpo's every weakness, but they have a chance to expose some. More opportunities for such critical exposure will come against Steve Alford's Lobos in New Mexico and Isaiah Canaan's Racers in Murray, Kentucky, but for right now, this game - as does any game when you think about it - has the chance to show Valpo what they still need to work on. And of course, the same can be said for the Billikens in reverse: Valpo may expose some of their weaknesses.
This is hard for fans to process, believe it or not. Caught up as we are in the Sportz Bubble
(which is easier to criticize than it is to avoid), we instinctively want to set a narrative in our mind for how this game is going to go. Valpo fans, especially those who traveled to this game from far away (I traveled on the Metro-Link, which is not "far away"), feel the need to believe their team will win. SLU fans undoubtedly feel the need to believe their team is better, playing at home, and therefore will win. Maybe it's hard to get excited and make noise if you don't believe in your team. The coaches certainly want their fans to believe and to support the team. We instinctively get caught up in the hype that eventually colors our reaction to every foul call that goes against our team. It is incredibly easy to acquire the paranoid mindset that the referees favor the other team and the world is out to ruin our fun. I speak from experience, trust me. I've always been impressed with the maturity shown by college players who routinely rise above this mindset. After all, they are the combatants. We're just fans with our own careers, many of them successful. These athletes are trying to build their careers, and while "almost all of us are going pro in something other than sports" (tm NCAA), even the ones who are planning to go pro in their sport take in stride that which turns us fans into raving lunatics. I find that incredibly amazing.
It is hard to take in a game like this where the other team is favored without trying to fashion some "all-in" image of my Crusaders scoring the upset. I find it incredibly easy to set my mind on a favorable result. By consequence, every event that happens in the game is interpreted by me according to my preferred result. Breaking that habit is proving to be harder than I thought it would be.
If anyone really needed evidence that life tells its own story, how about this: It's December 2, and here's me walking to the game with no coat on. It's 71 frikken degrees in December! Even for a barely southern city like St. Louis, 71 degrees in December is ridiculous.
But it's 71 degrees all the same. Mother Nature doesn't care about our prognostication, our patterns, our wishes, or our desires. And the heart of a dearly beloved ex-coach didn't seem to care that his former team had a game to play today. But considering that heart belonged to someone cherished by everyone in College Basketball (judging by all the heart-felt tweets that stormed the twitterverse), the team was only too happy to take a moment, then play the game anyway as if he were still directing them from the sidelines. From all accounts, the visitors were honored to join that enterprise, though they now had to deal with a grieving team instead of just a team - a grieving team that might well be a fired-up team, playing with tears in their eyes and a burning in their heart. What else was there to do, but to mourn the loss and then slug it out in a manner that would make the dearly departed proud? It sucked that the home team got some extra motivation to add to their deeper front line and home court advantage, but they weren't the cause of it. Enough about that; Coach Drew said it best the night before: we'll all miss Coach Majerus. I would add, there really isn't a better way to honor him than to engage in the sport that he was a wizard at (also widely recognized through all the accolades thrown posthumously in his direction).
That's what Our Game is: something that is played in the midst of Life, which is known to intrude capriciously at times. Our Game adapts out of respect. By the way, I found it instructive on a day in which there was a Twitter war (if my feed is to be believed) over whether an NFL game should be played immediately after a murder-suicide involving a player on one of the teams, to notice that we honored a life taken, and immediately after we honored our country. One moment unplanned and unexpected until yesterday; the other regular almost to the point of being perfunctory. One moment celebrating in defiance of a tragedy, the other celebrating a way of life that is very much alive and well. Completely different things, done for different reasons. By the same token, the fact that no one contemplated not playing this basketball game a day after a coach died has no bearing whatsoever on the debate over the football game. They were two different kinds of deaths, with completely different dynamics. One is not instructive for the other. Just something to think about.
And for the next two hours, unless you were watching on Fox Sports Midwest, you found it easy to forget the pallor hanging over the arena because you were engrossed in a game that was far from a masterpiece, but very much a struggle worthy of Coach Majerus. Two teams playing with a burden: St. Louis with a heavy heart, Valpo with a short bench and the reverence akin to friends and relatives who stand by the ones who lost a loved one. Both teams showed weaknesses that will no doubt receive great attention in the coming week. St. Louis takes on North Texas on Wednesday, Valpo returns home to host Fort Wayne (formerly IPFW) on the same night. Both could be considered trap games, though Valpo has been through that experience already with Fort Wayne twice at least in past years. Both teams have nothing more to gain from this game than what Coach Kampe highlighted: see what weaknesses were exposed. From the final score, it appears Valpo may get more value out this exercise than St. Louis because Valpo seemed to have more weaknesses exposed. For St. Louis, the fact that they didn't manage to blow Valpo out would seem to be a problem if they are to be serious contenders for the A-10 crown. When they had the chance to deliver the knockout blow, they invariably committed an unforced turnover. They were clearly the better team for 40 minutes today, but they let Valpo find some signs of life late in the 2nd half.
Interestingly enough, when the score was 51-36 in the second half in favor of St. Louis, my mind recalled that I had recently seen the article Bill James wrote over at slate.com
offering a formula for how to tell when a lead is "officially safe". I did a bad job of recalling the formula as I tried to pinpoint the moment when this occurred. Later, I was able to check the article and look at a play-by-play and pinpoint the 1:11 mark in the 2nd half when the lead was finally "officially safe." For reasons only Jim Crews knows, St. Louis didn't empty the bench at that point, and Valpo didn't have much of a bench to empty because Bryce Drew has 10 available players right now (Lavonte Dority becomes eligible on the 15th for the Missouri State game), but technically the fans who left earlier than that were premature. Rather than bore you with the math, I invite anyone interested to go check out the article and a text play-by-play of the game and do the math yourself. Or if you don't want to go visit the article, here is the formula:
"Take the number of points one team is ahead. Subtract three. Add a half-point if the team that is ahead has the ball, and subtract a half-point if the other team has the ball. (Numbers less than zero become zero.) Square that. If the result is greater than the number of seconds left in the game, the lead is safe."
Nevertheless, way back at 51-36 (near the 2nd media time out), I wrote in my notes: "Game over unless something changes dramatically." Valpo's offense had been stagnant for so long after getting off to such a promising start (scoring the first 5 points and leading 19-15 before surrendering the lead once and for all) that I could tell nothing was working as planned. Indeed I could sense that Valpo was in desperation mode. Bobby Capobianco started jacking up 3s (I don't recall anyone else being terribly wide open when he did) and Valpo tried a series of alley oops that all failed miserably. I had no trouble with the free-lance strategy. The execution was, of course, faulty, but I felt they had to try something. Erik Buggs had long since given up his outside shooting after missing 2 early 3s. He doesn't have the shooter's mentality, preferring instead to be a facilitator and drive to the hoop. He did so with some success early, but St. Louis adapted and put a stop to it. At this point - and Valpo fans are well familiar with it by now - it essentially became 4 on 5 with Erik's defender sagging back. Since he really didn't want to shoot, he was hampered in his efforts to contribute any other way. We love Erik very much, but we just wish he could shoot and keep the defense honest. When Coach Drew subbed for him, Valpo was left without a true point guard, which brings problems of its own. He's gotten better with his free throw shooting, so at least if he can drive to the basket, then he can score or create opportunities for his teammates. He tried mightily to function that way and experienced sporadic success, but unfortunately no one else was hitting much of anything from outside either until Matt Kenney drained 2 straight 3s when St. Louis took its foot off the gas a little. In short, the offense they prepared for the game simply wasn't working. When that happens, it is entirely appropriate to try desperate measures, much like a football team resorts to the Hail Mary or goes for it on 4th down because their backs are against the wall and regular offense won't work. Valpo needed to hit a couple of bombs, not simply to crawl back into it, but to give St. Louis something new to worry about.
I have learned to confront and subdue my inner paranoid fanatic that can't help feeling victimized every time something goes bad for my team. But that lunatic is still in there somewhere, far from dead. I had dared to dream of a win and continued success through the rest of a treacherous December schedule, followed by running the table in the Horizon League. I never drank the kool-aid. I never thought it was in the bag. But I did dare to hope. More than that, I dared to covet. I am extremely envious of what Butler accomplished before they moved up to the A-10 - in fact I plan to return to Chaifetz Arena when Butler comes to town to see how that match-up fares. I'm really curious to see how St. Louis handles the Havoc when VCU comes to town as well. Maybe I dared to expect. Valpo deserves some success, don't we?
That's why I'm a fan, and not a player. If I was a player, I'd be reduced to a blubbering mess a long time ago. I just don't have the heart of a player. I don't have the resiliency to keep coming back for more punishment with the same commitment that was brimming before any games were played. I am privileged to be able, from time to time, to be entertained by those who do have that resiliency. I get to watch them struggle, hurt, lose, win, and keep coming back for more, even in the midst of sorrow and injury.
It's almost as if Life is in charge, and it has something wonderful to show us. at SAINT LOUIS 62, VALPARAISO 49
VALPARAISO 5-2 (0-0) -- R. Broekhoff 4-12 1-2 10; W. Bogan 1-5 0-0 3; E. Buggs 2-8 1-4 5; K. Van Wijk 2-5 6-6 10; M. Kenney 3-6 2-2 10; B. Boggs 1-2 2-2 5; J. Coleman 1-3 2-2 4; V. Fernandez 1-1 0-2 2; B. Capobianco 0-4 0-0 0; A. Rossi 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 15-46 14-20 49.
SAINT LOUIS 4-3 (0-0) -- J. Jett 5-7 4-8 14; D. Evans 5-6 7-7 17; M. McCall Jr. 3-5 3-4 10; C. Ellis 2-6 3-4 9; C. Remekun 1-4 0-2 2; J. Barnett 1-2 0-0 3; R. Loe 1-3 0-0 2; J. Manning 2-3 1-2 5. Totals 20-36 18-27 62.
Three-point goals: VALP 5-21 (W. Bogan 1-5; E. Buggs 0-4; J. Coleman 0-1; B. Boggs 1-2; B. Capobianco 0-2; M. Kenney 2-2; R. Broekhoff 1-4; K. Van Wijk 0-1), SLU 4-9 (C. Ellis 2-3; J. Barnett 1-2; J. Jett 0-1; R. Loe 0-1; M. McCall 1-2); Rebounds: VALP 24 (R. Broekhoff 7), SLU 25 (J. Jett 6); Assists: VALP 6 (E. Buggs 4), SLU 12 (J. Jett 7); Total Fouls -- VALP 24, SLU 16; Fouled Out: VALP-E. Buggs; SLU-None.