Alec Peters’ unlikely return has Valpo looking like a March contender

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Since the advent of the graduate exception rule, no player has ever fit the mold of a graduate transfer candidate better than Alec Peters did last spring.

The versatile 6’9 Peters was coming off a junior season in which he’d established himself as one of the best power forwards in the country. He averaged 18.4 points and 8.5 rebounds per game for a Valparaiso team that won a school-record 30 games and dominated the Horizon League’s regular season with a 16-2 record. A stunning overtime loss to Green Bay in the conference tournament semifinals kept the Crusaders out the Big Dance, but Peters still had a memorable March, averaging 22.7 points over six postseason contests to carry Valpo all the way to the NIT championship game.

Those positive vibes were quickly erased on April 6, when head coach Bryce Drew — the most prominent face from the first family of Valparaiso hoops — announced that he was leaving the program to take the same gig at Vanderbilt. With three starters also leaving the Crusaders, the common thought was that Peters would soon declare himself eligible for the NBA draft, or pledge his final season of collegiate eligibility to a program viewed as a legitimate contender to win a national title in 2017.

In an era where departures are the norm and seeing the same face in the same uniform for four years has become an unrealistic expectation, Peters shocked everyone by staying true to his school.

“I started thinking about it differently than everybody else was thinking about it,” Peters said in May. “I started thinking about what has gotten me to this point. Being humble, loyalty. I started thinking unselfishly instead of selfishly. When it comes down to it, I couldn’t put on any other jersey. I couldn’t play with any other team.

“You’re definitely tempted to transfer and go to a higher level. But these guys are my best friends in the world. I wanted to stay.”

No one on earth was more excited to hear those words than Matt Lottich, the 34-year-old who became the first person with a last name other than Drew to be the head coach at Valpo in 28 years when he was promoted from assistant on April 7. With Peters back in the fold, Lottich knew that he’d have a team capable of not just getting back to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five years, but of advancing in the dance for the first time in nearly two decades.

Lottich’s first Valpo team has spent the first month of the season building itself a potential safety net should Horizon heartbreak occur once again in March. They handled their first three opponents of the season with ease, took an expected road loss to No. 4 Oregon, and then secured a pair of quality victories over Alabama and BYU to win the MGM Grand Main Event championship.

The biggest résumé addition for the Crusaders came Tuesday night, when the super-talented and 21st-ranked Rhode Island Rams walked into the Athletics-Recreation Center.

Sharing the ARC with at least three other players who expect to make money playing basketball in the near future, Peters was clearly the best player in the building. The reigning Horizon League Player of the Year scored 27 points and grabbed nine rebounds, went 10 of 10 from the free throw line, scored on three straight possessions in the game’s closing minute, and blocked a potential game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer to secure a 65-62 Valpo win.

“We always talk about not shying away from the moment and it’s very evident that Alec wants the ball in those moments,” Lottich said afterward. “I’m happy he’s on our side.”

So is every member of a Valparaiso fan base that had seen the Crusaders drop 40 consecutive games against ranked opponents. Ironically enough, their program’s most recent victory over a top-25 team had been all the way back in 1998, when their freshly departed former head coach became a March Madness icon.

That upset of Ole Miss also marks the last time a Valparaiso team advanced in the NCAA Tournament. The Crusaders have been to the tournament six times since, but haven’t been able to recreate the Sweet 16 magic that Homer and Bryce Drew provided in ’98.

That could change in a few short months thanks to Peters, who is shining even brighter than he did in his first three seasons.

With a week to rest before facing No. 1 Kentucky next Wednesday, Peters currently ranks second in the nation in scoring at 25.4 ppg, and is averaging career-highs in rebounds (9.1 rpg), assists (1.5 apg), blocked shots (0.6 bpg) and steals (1.0 spg). Perhaps most terrifying of all is the fact that Peters, a career 42 percent three-point shooter, is doing all this while shooting just 23.4 percent from beyond the arc. That’s a trend that’s unlikely to continue, which means that even gaudier numbers could be in the Crusader star’s future.

The production from the player who was supposed to be putting up these types of numbers on a power-conference team hasn’t been lost on the coach of his next opponent.

“Valparaiso has a center that’s going to be an NBA player,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said last week when previewing the Wildcats’ upcoming opponents. “Six-nine, 250, absolutely a lock for the NBA. Big kid. Scoring 25 a game right now. All of you listening to this, you need to come to the game to watch this kid. He’s that good.”

While toppling Kentucky might be too tall a task for Peters and company, they’ve already made a statement that teams cut from the same cloth as the Wildcats need to be on notice this March. Valpo has three wins over teams ranked in the top 75 of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, and have matched the program’s best eight-game start in the last 70 years.

Peters is as familiar with the video of his former head coach’s most famous moment as anyone else who has ever watched the NCAA Tournament. Though he didn’t follow Drew’s lead in walking away from Valparaiso last spring, Peters hopes to soon join him in March Madness immortality.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” Peters said on the day he announced he would remain at Valpo. “You dream of having your own one shining moment.”