The #1 seed Valparaiso Crusaders and the #8 seed Texas Southern Tigers have a lot in common heading into their NIT matchup Tuesday night in Indiana. Both teams won their respective conferences by three games with identical 16-2 regular season records. Both teams missed out on possible NCAA Tournament bids by losing in their conference tournament semi-finals to the eventual champions: Valpo in the Horizon League to Green Bay; Texas Southern in the SWAC to Southern. In their last 10 games, both teams have 8-2 records. Both teams have at least one player who earned all-league First Team honors. Redshirt freshman forward Derrick Griffin and senior forward Chris Thomas made the All-SWAC First Team, while junior forward Alec Peters was tabbed as a Horizon League First-Teamer. Valpo’s senior center Vashil Fernandez was named Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight year, while Griffin was named the SWAC’s top defender. Griffin also earned SWAC Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year honors. Mike Davis was named SWAC Coach of the Year, while Bryce Drew earned the same honor in the Horizon League. Both coaches were even once drafted by NBA teams, although Davis never played in the NBA. There are also interesting familial links for both coaches. Bryce played at Valpo for his father Homer, and later coached under his dad before getting the head job. Davis coached his son, Michael Davis Jr., at UAB. His son is currently an assistant coach for the Tigers.
Do not be fooled by Texas Southern’s 18-14 record. It is deceiving as they did not play a single home game in their brutal non-conference schedule, in which they went 1-11 playing the likes of Baylor, Creighton, Clemson, and Syracuse. They shoot the ball extremely well, leading the SWAC in field goal shooting at 45.8%. They also share the ball well as they lead the league in assists, and are narrowly second in scoring. They are a pretty good defensive team allowing 70.2 points per game. Valpo is known for their excellent team defense, allowing only 62.2 points per game. Fernandez is one of the best interior defenders and shot-blockers in the nation.
Griffin is a most impressive basketball player averaging 13.1 points and 11.2 rebounds per game, the latter stat is 10th best in the nation. But what is amazing is that some people think he is better on the gridiron than the hardwood. He is a wide receiver on the Tigers football team who had 36 receptions for 709 yards and 11 touchdowns in the fall. His athleticism cannot be missed on the court as he runs the floor well and is one of the most electric slam dunkers around. His constant dunking helps explain his gaudy 65.7 field goal percentage, which is 7th in the nation. The coolest thing about Griffin’s transition from the football season to hoops is that on Saturday, November 28th, he had his last football game. Just four days later, he played in his first college basketball game against Mississippi State and had 19 points and 12 boards. In an era when player often want extra rest, this shows how well Griffin takes care of his body and that he is always ready to play. The Crusaders must make containing Griffin a priority or a major upset could be in the making. Expect bulky forward Jubril Adekoya to get extra minutes trying to slow Griffin down in the key. But the Crusaders will also have to defend Griffin by committee with lots of help defense, and they need to box him out on both ends when the ball is shot.
The Tigers are not nearly as deep as Valpo, so expect their starters to log a lot of minutes. Senior forward Malcolm Riley is capable of a big offensive night, as he scored as many as 36 points in a game this season. The Tigers get to the free throw line nearly 24 times per game, so expect this to be a physical game. The Tigers will need to guard the perimeter, as Valpo has many players capable of making outside shots. Even if they are successful in making Peters have a quiet night, Valpo has so many other weapons that can hurt you. Guards Tevonn Walker and Keith Carter can both finish strong at the basket, although they will need to do so with caution with a shot blocker like Griffin lurking. Expect this game to be played with lots of intensity and not that many mistakes, as both teams are very experienced. Whichever team can control the glass, get some second chance points, convert in transition, and make crucial free throws late in the game will give themselves a good chance to win. Expect this game to be one of the better basketball games this postseason… in any tournament. The game is slated for a 9:15 pm start on Tuesday on ESPN3.