In a game pitting two teams who are known NCAA tournament commodities in recent years, Thursday night's 1st round St. Louis region matchup between (2) Gonzaga and (15) Valparaiso features two teams who wish to make some major noise once
The Valpo Crusaders went 18-12 this year, and won the Mid-Continent regular season and postseason tournament titles. Valpo is led, once again, by veteran head coach Homer Drew, who after his son's hiring at Baylor, returned to the
sidelines to lead the Crusaders. Valpo won 14 of its last 17 games, and is certainly playing well coming into the tournament. In the pre-conference
season, Valpo struggled against major opponents, but were highly competitive in games at Marquette, and at home versus South Florida and Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
They struggled mightily against Cincinnati, and in a late season tussle at Duke. There is no doubt that the Crusaders came into their own during the Mid-Continent season, winning the regular season title by a game. The Crusaders
finished with a RPI of 139 (according to collegerpi.com).
Points Per Game: 72.3
Assists Per Game: 15.5
Blocks Per Game: 3.2
Field Goal %: 45%
3 Point Field Goal %: 31%
Rebounds Per Game: 38.4
Steals Per Game: 6.8
Turnovers Per Game: 16.2
Free Throw %: 71%
3 Pointers Per Game: 5.3
PG = #33 Ali Berdiel, 6-6, junior. Needless to say, Berdiel presents instant matchup issues against most teams due his size, which is highly unusual for a floor general. He is a fine passer (6.1 APG), and is able to see over defenses. He shoots 37% from three point land, but struggles at the charity stripe (66%). He is a physical defender.
SG = #20 Robert Nieves, 6-4, senior. Nieves is a streaky shooter – he can either disappear in games, or catch fire. While he only shot 28% from the 3 point line, several games suggest that when he is on, he is really on. Bad free throw shooter (50%).
SF = #11 Omar Sylla, 6-6, freshman. Sylla's job on this team is to be its defensive stopper. He hardly scores – he in fact didn't score a point in the Mid-Continent tourney. But he can create havoc on the perimeter as a defender. Nice role player.
PF = #10 Joaquim Gomes, 6-8, senior. Gomes is an excellent rebounder (8.8 RPG) and scorer in the middle (13.1 PPG) when facing non-physical post players. Very frail.
PF/C = #42 Dan Oppland, 6-8, soph. Oppland is the best player for Valpo, and is very much the reason why they are in the NCAA Tourney. He is on a huge hot streak, scoring 32 points and landing 8 boards in their Mid-Continent tourney semi-final game. He averages nearly 16 PPG, shoots 55% from the field, grabs 7.2 rebounds per game, and is a solid free throw shooter (78%).
Valpo regularly plays 3 guys off the bench, but its strength is definitely with its starters. Freshman guard Jimmie Miles can provide instant offense off the bench. Senior Greg Tonagel runs the show when Berdiel is on the bench getting a
breather, and wing soph Ron Howard is good at driving towards the basket.
The strengths of Valpo comes from Gomes and Oppland in the post. Most of the Crusader points come from underneath, and Gonzaga will need to focus on these two players. Valpo is not a very good perimeter shooting team, especially from
the 3 point line, and its poorest free throw shooters are its guards and wings. Oppland must have a good game if Valpo is to win. Shut him down, and the Crusaders are likely to fall.
As for Gonzaga, the Bulldogs must recover from a WCC conference tournament that resulted in two of its the worst offensive performances of the season. Gonzaga's perimeter shooters, who are leading all tournament teams in 3 point shooting percentage, must get back on track in order help the big men out. Turiaf, Violette and the crew need to remain out of foul trouble so that
Gonzaga will have its best and most experienced post players guarding Gomes and Oppland. If Gonzaga's recent shooting woes are put to rest, and if its post players stay clear of foul trouble, the Bulldogs should come out on top by