A pivotal game for early season conference positioning takes place on Friday night at 7 pm on ESPN2. Oakland (9-6, 1-1) looks to right the ship, coming off a narrow loss Monday versus Youngstown State. The Golden Grizzlies still feel like they are among the best in the Horizon League. This game is their chance to prove it. Valparaiso (11-3, 1-0) looks to assert itself as the undisputed top team in the H-League. The Crusaders have a wealth of experience and are one of the best defensive teams in the country. They have aspirations of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. But they first need to aim to win the Horizon League regular season and tournament titles. Let’s take a look at how these mid-major heavyweights match-up. “Who’s got the edge?”
Starting Frontcourt: Valpo’s Vashil Fernandez is the most feared defender in the league averaging nearly 2.5 blocks per game. Oakland loves to drive the ball to the basket, so they will have to watch out for Fernandez altering shots. Alec Peters is as talented as they come for big men, as he can play both inside and on the perimeter. He leads the team in three-point shooting, and his ability to stretch out opponents defenses gives his teammates plenty of opportunities to score in the paint. Oakland’s Percy Gibson and Jalen Hayes are very good rebounders and both have good moves to score in the post. But they have struggled against some of Oakland’s tougher opponents. It is likely that Hayes will be tasked with guarding Peters much of the game, and whether or not he can contain Peters will be one of the biggest factors for Oakland to win. EDGE: Valpo
Starting Backcourt: Everything, especially offensively, for Oakland revolves around point guard Kay Felder. He is an equally amazing scorer and ball distributor. He is a very smart player who has a knack for knowing when to shoot or make the extra pass. Keith Carter is the primary ball handler for the Crusaders, who has an excellent assist to turnover ratio of about 2.5: 1. Tevonn Walker is back from his injury and is dangerous when driving to the basket to score. Darien Walker has struggled a bit this year offensively. But he has the size and physicality to disrupt Oakland’s scorers. Oakland’s first-year transfers Sherron Dorsey-Walker and Martez Walker have shown signs of brilliance, but also inconsistency. This is understandable, but there are no excuses come league play. Dorsey-Walker has continued to play very well defensively, and is an excellent rebounder, especially on long misses. EDGE: Oakland
Bench: Oakland tends to have a small bench, as far as players who see significant minutes. Max Hooper will get his five to ten three point attempts per game, but he is not a stopper defensively. Despite taking only threes, he is a patient shooter who does not force errant attempts. Nick Daniels was in a shooting funk for much of the first half of the season. He found his mojo on Monday and had a career night. He is the big X-Factor for Oakland, and really plays with a lot of energy in his new role off the bench. Look for freshman big man Xavier Hill-Mais to continue to log more minutes. He has been very efficient in his limited time on the court so far. Valpo’s bench is deep, versatile and has players with a lot of size. Shane Hammink and David Skara are excellent shooters, while Jubril Adekoya comes in as a good low-post defender and capable rebounder. E. Victor Nickerson is a versatile swingman who can score in a variety of ways, and has proven to be another valuable transfer, now in his second and final season with Valpo. EDGE: Valpo
Offense/Defense: Oakland leads the H-League by scoring 86.9 ppg, while Valpo leads the league in only allowing 57.7 ppg. Something has got to give, and that something is that the Crusaders are a team whose points can come in many different ways. Valpo will want to slow the game down, and not compete with Oakland in transition as much. Oakland has given up at least 93 points in five games this season, and they only won one of those games. Valpo has only allowed a team to score in the 80s once this season. It is obvious which team is superior in scoring and which has the stifling defense. But when you look at them collectively, Valpo is the more balanced team. EDGE: VALPO
Parting shot: Kay Felder has proven that he rises to the occasion in big games. Expect the O’rena to be buzzing with energy for this nationally televised game. Oakland really feeds off of their crowd and was undefeated in league play at home last season. Valpo is as experienced and disciplined as a team can be. There is not an arena or element that will noticeably faze them. They will stick to the game plan of Bryce Drew, who is the best coach in the country under 50 years old. Valpo’s season will last longer than Oakland’s in March. But do not be surprised if the Golden Grizzlies eke out a win in this battle. Just expect a hard fought game that is more physical and has less scoring than expected.