Last year was supposed to be the year. Valparaiso was supposed to be the juggernaut, the mid-major absolutely everybody wanted to avoid during the NCAA Tournament. The Crusaders were supposed to do a lot of things last season, but a slip-up in the Horizon League tournament prevented Alec Peters from having his coming-out party to the world.
Perhaps last year’s “supposed to” is this year “will” for Peters and Valparaiso.
Nobody was really sure what the Crusaders would look like back in April. Peters had declared for the NBA Draft, Bryce Drew was off to Vanderbilt and Valparaiso was losing four seniors that helped lead the team to a runner-up finish in the NIT. Luckily, Peters decided to come back for his senior year and didn’t transfer, opting to finish what he had helped start.
Mid-majors across the country strive to reach the level Valparaiso has reached over the last few years and few are ever able to sustain it the way the Crusaders have. Though Peters was set to come back, there was some mystery surrounding the team and whether or not they could re-find the magic they lost a year ago.
Enter Rhode Island, nationally ranked and loaded with talent, willing to take on the challenge of playing Valparaiso on their own floor. With the game came opportunities for both sides. For the Rams, it was a chance to see where they were as a team and earn a very nice road win to add to their NCAA Tournament resume. For the Crusaders, it was the measuring-stick game to see if they could be good enough to get back to March and do what they were unable to do last year.
Valpo earned a hard-fought, thrilling 65-62 win over the Rams. With the win, it not only gave the program its first over a ranked opponent in almost 30 years, it reminded everybody that Peters is a pretty talented player and any team that has him should never be counted out.
Peters put up 27 points and nine rebounds in the win and has Valpo off to a 7-1 start, the best eight-game start since 1944-45 for the Crusaders. The team now has wins over a nationally ranked team, a Power 5 program (Alabama) and a perennial NCAA tourney team (BYU) to tout and we’re just now entering December. Even last season’s team can’t claim those accomplishments.
Most of this has to do with Peters, who is taking on even more responsibility this time around and thriving in the role. He’s been the go-to guy for three years now, but this year is different. This year, he doesn’t have the same level of depth and talent around him. Peters is currently on pace to shatter his career-high in points per game average (at 25.4 through Wednesday) and will ultimately go down as one of the most decorated players in Valparaiso history.
However, there’s one thing Peters will need to do, and would likely love to do, before it’s all over: get to the NCAA Tournament and win a game.
Valparaiso came awfully close to fulfilling this desire in 2015 when the Crusaders took Maryland to the limit in their first-round matchup. The Terrapins ultimately came away with the win, but not without having to fend off Valpo. Peters didn’t get his chance last season. His 32 points weren’t enough to lead the team past Green Bay in the conference tourney and Peters and co. had to settle for the NIT bid. They came close to making that worth it. Then again, nobody remembers the NIT champions and everybody remembers the underdog beating the power team in March.
For Peters, this is his last chance to make it happen, and with the leadership and heavy load he’s taking on this season, he may just will this team to do it. Nobody knows how this season will shape out and Valparaiso will need to win the conference tournament to get that chance, but with Peters doing what he’s done so far, and if he can keep it going, it’s entirely possible his final act will be one to remember.