It isn’t the tournament they planned to play in, but the Valparaiso Crusaders will gladly accept an NIT championship.
“It’s a huge step for our program,” said coach Bryce Drew, whose team will face George Washington in the title game Thursday in New York. “To be able to play this deep into March, only a few teams left in the country, getting the exposure on ESPN and getting to play in Madison Square Garden. I think our fan base and our university, it’s just been a great response from our alumni, and everyone is just really excited about what’s happened the last few weeks.”
Valparaiso (30-6) was one of the first four teams left out of the NCAA tournament. The top-seeded Crusaders went 16-2 in the Horizon League, winning it by three games, but lost to Green Bay in overtime in the conference tournament semifinals.
They’ve bounced back in a big way, and now they’re on the cusp of their first NIT crown. Standing in their way are the fourth-seeded Colonials (27-10).
“They have a lot of different pieces. They play very well together. They rebound the ball well. They have skilled players that make shots, and they have experience,” Drew said.
The title game matches the tournament’s top two performers in Crusaders star Alec Peters and Colonials counterpart Tyler Cavanaugh, strikingly similar players.
Both junior forwards are listed at 6-9, separated by five pounds. Offensively skilled inside and outside, they each shoot 51 percent from the field, better than 42 percent from three-point range and at least 82 percent at the foul line.
Peters averages 18.4 points and 8.4 rebounds. Cavanaugh, a Wake Forest transfer, is putting up 16.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
“I think when both of them play well, obviously our teams play a lot better and guys feed off of them,” Drew said. “But it will be an interesting matchup because they do similar things. They can pick off threes or duck in the post and score. They both really go at the offensive boards and defensive boards very hard.”
It will be a good matchup with two very good players.”
Consistency is a hallmark, too.
Peters had 20 points or more in seven straight games before scoring 15 in the semifinals. Cavanaugh has reached double figures in every game this season.
And both have been at their best in the NIT.
Peters is averaging 22.3 points and 8.3 rebounds in four games, while Cavanaugh is at 21.3 points and 9.8 rebounds to go with 55.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc (10 for 18).
“He’s been incredible,” Colonials coach Mike Lonergan said. “Tyler knows the game. Everything he says, it’s amazing his IQ. I’m happy for him because he had a lot of options when he left Wake Forest, and we recruited him in high school. He was a jump shooter and he’s become a rebounder. He’s worked on his body. I just think going to next year, (he) could be a conference player of the year.”
George Washington, located four blocks from the White House in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C., figures to have plenty of fan support. New York is about a 225-mile trip up I-95, and some trains take less than three hours.
The Colonials, who start players from Argentina, Denmark and Japan, also hope to have a relatively healthy Joe McDonald against Valpo. The senior point guard injured his ankle in the semifinals Tuesday but stayed in the game, finishing with nine points and six assists.
”I think he’ll be OK. I don’t know about 100 percent, but hopefully he’ll be OK,” Lonergan said. “Luckily for us he’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached. It would take a lot for him to miss this. I think it’s just a sprain.”