Sure the 2006-2007 college basketball season has yet to begin. But, some things are already a given for when it ends come March, or if your lucky even April. And one of those things is that the Mid-Continent Conference is about to look a whole lot different.
And no, it is not just because IPFW, North Dakota State and South Dakota State have already packed their bags in anticipation of moving in on July 1st of next year. It is instead because one of the long time tenants of the Mid-Con hotel is saying bye bye.
So the Valparaiso Crusaders prepare to ride off into the sunset, away from the Mid-Continent Conference and into the open hands of their Midwestern rivals of the Horizon League. Let us take this time to pause and look back at the five biggest moments for Valpo since they became a founding member of the Mid-Con in 1982.
Number 5: 10 years of titles (1994-2004)
It was a time when Valpo bucked all the trends, broke a lot of the records and ignored the turnover ratio of the average college basketball program. While other conferences were experiencing a changing of the guard every year, Valparaiso dominated the Mid-Con, especially for the ten-year span of 1994 to 2004.
The Crusaders won both the regular season and tournament titles for a record five straight years from 1995-1999, capped off by their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1996 and a Cinderella-run in 1998. In 2000, Homer Drew led the school to a sixth straight conference tournament title and then won the regular season crown again in 2001. In Drew’s final season of his first run as coach, they won both titles in 2002. Scott Drew led them to a regular season crown in 2003 before father Homer returned to do the same in 2004.
That is 16 titles in 10 total seasons, winning at least one title each year. And, their 1995-1999 run paired them up with the likes of North Carolina State, UMass and Kentucky as the only teams to win both regular season and tournament conference titles in five straight seasons. The run solidified Valpo as the most dominant team that the Mid-Continent Conference has seen to date.
Number 4: 15 players make it to the NBA
For Valpo coach Homer Drew, the best of his NBA draftees was likely his son Bryce, now an assistant under him with the Crusaders. Bryce was drafted in the first round of the 1998 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets after Valpo’s magical tournament run months earlier. Bryce however only enjoyed a brief stint in the National Basketball Association, averaging 4.4 points per game.
The only other former Valpo player of note who went on to the NBA is Chris Emsinger. While no former Crusader has enjoyed much success on basketball’s highest level, it is a rare feat and therefore an honor for a low-to-mid-major school like Valpo to send so many to the NBA, be it by draft of free agency.
Number 3: Valparaiso is founding member of Mid-Con
The Mid-Continent Conference opened in 1982 with eight members. Valparaiso was the only member of the conference from the state of Indiana until IUPUI joined 16 years later in 1998. It was important in the early going for the Crusader program to bring a presence from Indiana in the primarily Midwest based conference. The initial conference breakdown saw three Illinois schools and one school each from the states of Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and Missouri.
Valpo however did not have a strong presence until after five founding schools and four other schools had come and gone from the ranks of the Mid-Con. In 1995, the same year that Troy State entered the conference, Valpo won both conference titles. Not a year had gone by until the 2005-2006 season that they had not captured a Mid-Con title of some sort with their titles totaling 18.
When Valparaiso leaves the Mid-Con officially on July 1, 2007, it will leave Western Illinois as the only remaining founding member.
Number 2: Homer Drew returns to head coaching position
He was only gone for one season, watching his son Scott take over for him. But, the true Crusader fans knew the difference. Scott, while leading them to a regular season Mid-Con title, was no Homer Drew. After all, Homer Drew was and still is Valpo basketball.
Drew had coached for 26 years on the college level before retiring on April 25, 2002. One year later, the Valpo faithful were happy to have their school’s all-time winningest coach back in the saddle. Drew has a demeanor all of his own and a style that has led to a distinct home court advantage for teams he coaches. From 1993 until his retirement in 2002, Drew led Valpo to a 101-13 record on their home court at the Athletics-Recreation Center, nearly an 89 percent winning percentage. He was also a Mid-Con coach of the Year three times in the same span.
In his first season back with the Crusader, the elder Drew finished 18-13 overall, winning the Mid-Con regular season title.
Number 1: Bryce Drew hits “The Shot”
It will never matter how many times that you see it, it will still go down as one of the greatest and most maddening moments in the history of March Madness. When you think of the big shots in the NCAA Tournament, especially in recent years, it should always come down to two men: Christian Laettner and Bryce Drew.
13th seeded Valpo was trailing Ole Miss 67-69 with 4.1 seconds to play in the first round of the 1998 NCAA Tournament. The Rebel’s Ansu Sesay then missed back-to-back free throws to give the Crusaders the ball with 2.5 seconds left. Valpo then ran a play called “The Pacer” and two passes later, Drew sank a 23-foot jumper for the win.
In 2005, CHN named Drew the #34 best point guard of the modern era (1990-2005).
Sports Illustrated later named “The Shot” as fifth best moment in sports for 1998 and its image will undoubtedly make basketball fans remember Valparaiso basketball forever.