A Valparaiso hoops ‘explosion’ is goal of new coach Roger Powell Jr., former Illini standout

“I think this is a time to prove that faith works, hard work works, loving people works,” Powell said. “That’s what I believe.”

SHARE A Valparaiso hoops ‘explosion’ is goal of new coach Roger Powell Jr., former Illini standout
Gonzaga v Brigham Young

Gonzaga assistant coach Roger Powell Jr. [left] and star Drew Timme celebrate a West Coast Conference tournament championship in 2021.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

How good was Illinois’ Roger Powell Jr. in the 2005 Final Four? As good as ever with an 18-point second half in the semifinals against Louisville. As good as he could be with a nine-point, 14-rebound effort in the final against North Carolina.

Alas, not quite good enough to climb one more ladder and cut down one more net.

Eighteen years later, the No. 1-ranked Illini’s 75-70 loss to No. 2 North Carolina in St. Louis still doesn’t sit right with Powell, now 40.

Nor does No. 1 Gonzaga’s 86-70 loss to No. 2 Baylor in the 2021 title game in Indianapolis. Powell was an assistant coach on that stacked Bulldogs squad, which fell 40 minutes short of an unbeaten season.

“But I’m going to say this right now: I’m going to win a national championship,” Powell said Monday while on a plane with his family, headed for the next stop in his basketball career. “I’m going to get back to that game and win it.”

The Joliet native will be introduced Wednesday as head coach at Valparaiso, where he was an assistant to Bryce Drew for an outstanding five-year stretch before following Drew to Vanderbilt as associate head coach. From 2011 to 2016, Valparaiso — then known as the Crusaders — dominated the Horizon League, winning four regular-season titles and reaching the NCAA Tournament twice.

The task for Powell, the program’s first Black head coach, begins with making Valpo hoops matter again. Under predecessor Matt Lottich (who also was on Drew’s staff before being promoted), the Beacons, as they’ve been called since 2021, never came close to contention in six seasons since joining the Missouri Valley Conference.

“I can’t wait,” said Powell, who has a master’s degree in sports administration from the school. “When I was there before, we had a ton of success. We were ready to explode.”

Powell won’t be the first mid-major coach to step to the podium and evoke the singular success of Gonzaga as the model of what might be attainable. But he has tremendous credibility after excelling in a significant role there. He also was part of an NCAA Tournament team at Vanderbilt, which lost a two-point dogfight against Northwestern in the first round in 2017.

Powell’s presence at news conferences also could be something to behold. “The Rev,” as he was nicknamed at Illinois for writing Scripture on his shoes before games, became an ordained Pentecostal minister while still an undergraduate and preaches regularly to this day.

A little faith probably can’t hurt in this Wild West time of NIL collectives and the transfer portal.

“All of that actually excites me — it really does,” Powell said. “I’m a hard worker, confident in God, and I try to bring hope to people. People look to me when hope is lost. I think this is a time to prove that faith works, hard work works, loving people works. That’s what I believe.”

As a 6-6, 235-pound Illini forward — a sculpted powerhouse — Powell rarely had trouble holding his own. NBA success was far more elusive. He had a handful of training-camp opportunities, including a couple with the Bulls, and played three regular-season games with the Jazz in 2006. Other than that, there were years in the former CBA, in the NBA D-League (the precursor to the G League) and in top leagues in Italy, Israel, Spain, France and Germany.

It was a successful playing career (Powell was making more than the NBA minimum when he hung up the high-tops at 28 to accept Drew’s invitation to Valparaiso), but the opportunity to coach spoke to him instantly and with unanticipated clarity.

“My agent thought I was crazy,” he said. “My plan had been to play until probably 35, but I walked away because it felt like God said to go coach. I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know I would turn into an associate head coach in the [Southeastern Conference]. I didn’t know I’d go to Gonzaga and have a chance to win a national championship.

“And here we are, 12 years later, and I’m the head coach at the very place when I decided to walk away from playing to go as an assistant. How about that?”

It’s a heck of a story, but now he has to win. Any chance a Valpo “explosion” would be as sweet as making it in the NBA might have been?

“Absolutely, man,” he said. “Even better. I get to impact a community, a campus, a bunch of kids. In a different way, I get to mentor and shape my assistant coaches. I’ve already experienced winning at Illinois, winning at Valpo, going to the tournament at Vandy, all the Gonzaga success, and now I get to try to cultivate that experience for my players and staff and all their families? That’s the dream. This is it.”

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