MBB: No. 7 Valparaiso delivers performance everyone has been waiting for
ST. LOUIS - Valparaiso’s potential finally delivered on Thursday night.
Relatively healthy for the first time in weeks, the No. 7 Beacons showed just how potent of an attack it had against No. 10 Evansville in the opening round of Arch Madness.
Kobe King knocked down shots all over the court. Sheldon Edwards played with composed aggression. Ben Krikke and Thomas Kithier sliced up Evansville’s interior defense. Even Preston Ruedinger got in on the act with his best Spike Albrecht impression.
The sum of all Valparaiso’s offensive parts clicking at the same time was five players in double figures and an 81-59 rout over the Purple Aces.
“We have a lot of weapons,” King said. “You never know whose night it’s going to be. Sometimes people have different nights, different mismatches. To have that safety blanket, knowing you can put up points with anyone (on the roster), it’s something we’ve been able to grasp onto. It’s about getting stops and hitting shots.”
The Beacons (14-17) did plenty of both on Thursday night and it started with Ruedinger. The freshman walk-on knocked down his first 3-pointer less than two minutes into the game and he connected on another shortly thereafter. His third 3-pointer gave Ruedinger a new career high before the first stoppage in play. He capped off his scoring by connecting on three free throws after getting fouled beyond the 3-point line. His unexpected output drew some comparisons to Albrecht, the little-used freshman guard from Crown Point who erupted for 17 points in the first half of the 2013 NCAA title game.
“I was really excited,” Ruedinger said. “My first playoff game in college. I wouldn’t want to do this with anybody but these guys. I love all these guys. They got my back and I got theirs.”
If Ruedinger had nerves in his first college game, he didn’t show it. If he had, it would’ve been just fine with Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich.
“The message to the team before the game was it’s ok to be nervous,” Lottich said. “You’re in a situation where you’re really fighting for your (basketball) life and you’re playing against someone else who is fighting for their basketball life. I told our guys not to leave it all out there in the layup line, but I want them to try and win every possession. I thought for the most part our guys had that mentality.”
Perhaps the best example of this was the play of Edwards. The sophomore guard zigged all night in places that he normally zagged during the regular season. Finding himself open beyond the arc, Edwards chose to make the extra pass. Getting some space from a defender, the Florida native attacked the basket instead of taking a deep 3-pointer. Edwards and King led Valparaiso in scoring with 18 points apiece and the member of the Valley All-Improved Team added seven rebounds and four assists.
As good as Ruedinger and Edwards were, all eyes were on Kithier on Thursday night. The Michigan State transfer was back in the lineup after missing the last four regular-season games and 10 of Valparaiso’s 18 Valley contests. Kithier wasted no time making an impact as he filled out the stat line with 10 points, four rebounds, three assists and two blocks, both of which came on Evansville 3-point attempts.
“It just feels good to be back on the court,” Kithier said. “Especially at tournament time. I want to be on the court. I don’t want to miss any of these games. It kills me that I had to miss games earlier in the year and down the stretch.”
Kithier wasn’t the only injured player to return to the court on Thursday. Evansville’s second-leading scorer Jawaun Newton was back in the lineup after missing several weeks with a knee injury. Newton tried to gut it out and made it seven minutes before collapsing to the ground away from the action. He hobbled off the court into the arms of an Evansville assistant coach and his night was done. While Kithier bounced between the court, sitting on the bench, laying on the ground next to the bench or stretching his back while standing behind the bench, he came out of the game no worse for wear.
“I saw what I always see from Tom,” Lottich said. “The first thing we’re going to see is effort. The one thing that we ask our 5s to do is quarterback our defense. We’re a much better defensive team when he’s playing. Missing that piece has been tough, but the one thing I’ve never questioned has been his heart. I know he wants to be out there and when a young man like that tells me he can’t go, then I know he can’t. He assured me he was playing in this tournament. I’m glad to have him back for sure.
King delivered another superb performance, going 7-of-10 from the field and 3-of-4 from the 3-point line for a team-high 18 points. The Wisconsin transfer now has scored in double figures in 12 of the last 13 games and 19 of the 22 games he’s played in a Valparaiso uniform.
“We call him ‘Kobe Killer’ for a reason,” Kithier said. “His midrange is tough and he is such a big guard around the basket. Kobe is a guy that just wants to have fun. I love playing with Kobe. I competed against him and now I love the fact that I have him on my team.”
The joy of winning lasts only so long in St. Louis. The Beacons quickly exited the Enterprise Center and got back to the team hotel for food and plenty of rest. There will be a film session and a walk through in there somewhere as Valparaiso must now prepare for a Missouri State team that has been a thorn in its side multiple times at Arch Madness. The Bears ended Valpo’s season in 2018 and 2021 while the Beacons returned the favor in 2020. The two teams have met in every round of the tournament with the exception of the championship game in the last five years.
Missouri State dominated Valpo in a way no other team did this season. The Bears won 74-57 at the Athletics-Recreation Center on Jan. 15. as Isiaih Mosley dropped in 32 points. Mosley came back with another 22 points as Missouri State held serve at home in a 84-66 win on Feb. 12.
“They’re a pretty potent offensive group,” Lottich said. “We know we have our hands full in some respects. I think we’re playing well right now. I’m excited for tomorrow. I know these guys are as well. It’s going to be a tough game, but we’re going to be up for it.”
“We didn’t come here for one game,” Lottich added. “We’re going to show up tomorrow and we’re going to compete. It’s a proud group. We’re going to have some fight tomorrow.”
I’m going to flat out steal a segment from Scott Van Pelt. Remember, good writers borrow from other writers; great writers steal from them…
The Best Thing I Saw Today: Dan Muller showed up at Arch Madness. For some thoughts from Muller and why the recently-fired Illinois State coach was at the Enterprise Center, I suggest you check out this wonderful story by Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. For my thoughts, well, here they are. I’ve always liked Muller. He's got a deadpan wit that is my particular brand of humor. Valpo and Illinois State have had some pretty good battles in the last five years and he’s always been good to speak with after games. I’ve heard that when ISU was riding high that maybe he was more difficult, but I never experienced that. My favorite part of Friday was when Muller was sitting on press row with a media badge on. He was asking me the different things media people were supposed to be doing while holding court with Missouri State coach Dana Ford, Valparaiso associate head coach Luke Gore and Valley Commissioner Jeff Jackson. I told Muller he was doing it wrong because they had just put out free food in the back and any media members worth their salt would run back there and grab the food. I didn’t hear what he had to say in response. I went to get the food.
I’ve been banging the Arch Madness drum for five years now and I know Valparaiso hasn’t exactly inspired a lot of confidence for late weekend runs, what with playing on Thursday four of the five years. Throw in a pandemic last year, and I truly understand why Valpo hasn’t had as strong of fan support in St. Louis as other programs. All that being said, when and if Valpo gets this thing rolling and begins avoiding Thursday year in and year out, I suggest everyone come down to this tournament. The Ballpark Village, the fans walking the streets, the beautiful March weather. You really can’t beat the experience.
I’ve got plenty more thoughts on Arch Madness, but I’ll save them for my post-mortem article on the weekend. A reminder that game coverage is free at The Victory Bell. If you’re truly enjoying the content, I ask you to subscribe for the low cost of $5/month or $49.99 a year. For every paid subscription I receive on Friday, I’ll have one slice of IMO’s Pizza. (I’m capping slices at 10 for fear of killing my tastebuds) In case you’ve never heard of IMO’s, look it up. Lord knows I should’ve the first, and only, time I tried it.
(Photos provided by Missouri Valley Conference)