The Butler Bulldogs won’t be participating in this year’s NCAA tournament, but the Horizon League is sending a more-than-capable replacement.
The victory gives the Titans a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. Head coach Ray McCallum -- the father of the Titans’ star player -- said five busloads of students made the 250-mile trip for Tuesday’s game.
“I’m happy for the city of Detroit,” said McCallum, the former Ball State and Houston head coach. “We’re Detroit’s team. This gives the city a program to follow in the tournament with its name on it.”
Coaches of teams predicted to be seeded No. 2 or No. 3 probably grew nervous as they watched Detroit dismantle Valparaiso. The Titans, who will likely be a No. 14 or a No. 15 seed, played with the kind of confidence and swagger that is imperative for a team seeking a first-round upset next week.
Detroit trailed by three points at halftime before erupting after intermission. The Titans shot 58 percent in the second half to stun Valparaiso on its home court. The Crusaders had defeated Detroit twice this season by a combined seven points.
“We just played with a lot of emotion, a lot of intensity,” McCallum said. “We got stronger as the game went on.”
Resilience has been a theme for Detroit all season.
Some preseason publications picked the Titans to win the Horizon League title, but things turned sour when star center Eli Holman -- one of the best players in the country at his position -- was suspended before the start of the season for a violation of team rules.
Detroit lost six of the 10 games that Holman missed (including two league contests). Even after Holman returned, it took McCallum’s squad a while to find its groove. Detroit certainly has it now, though. It will enter the tournament having won 10 of its past 11 games.
“These guys have hung together,” McCallum said. “We’re playing our best basketball at just the right time.”
Detroit may compete in a small conference, but there is nothing “mid-major” about many of its players.
Holman began his career at Indiana before transferring after head coach Kelvin Sampson was fired. McCallum was on Sampson’s Indiana staff and had helped recruit Holman, so the switch to Detroit made perfect sense for the 6-foot-10, 270-pound senior. Holman averages 11.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.4. blocks. Impressive numbers, considering he plays just 23 minutes a game. Holman only had five points Tuesday.
“Still,” McCallum said, “with that size ... he’s just a presence.”
Forward LaMarcus Lowe, who is also 6-10, had 14 points and 10 rebounds against Valparaiso, but it’s no secret that the biggest strength of this team is its guards. Chase Simon, a 6-7 senior, struggled Tuesday but is averaging 13.7 points on the season. Calliste is the Titans’ top threat from 3-point range.
Neither player, however, is as highly-medaled as McCallum Jr., who spurned offers from schools such as Kansas and UCLA to play for his father at Detroit.
“It was a big decision for him,” the elder McCallum said. “A lot of people said, ‘Why do you want to go to Detroit? They’re not going to go to the tournament. At our school you’ll go every year.’
“I said, ‘If you come here, you’ll have to do more.’ He embraced that.”
McCallum Jr.’s 21-point performance against Valpairso -- which came on 10-of-16 shooting -- was the perfect birthday present for his father, who turned 51 on Tuesday.
McCallum deserves just as much credit as his son for Detroit’s turnaround. The Titans went just 7-23 in McCallum’s first season in 2008-09, but they haven’t had a losing season since. The current team is 22-13.
Detroit has just four NCAA tournament appearances in school history.
“In our meeting last night, all we talked about was winning a league [tournament] championship,” McCallum said. “We’ve got guys on this team that have been around for four years, guys that can appreciate how far we’ve come.
“This is what it’s all about. Hopefully there are even better things to come.”
Butler advanced to the NCAA title game as the Horizon League’s representative the last two seasons. The Bulldogs lost to Duke in 2010 and Connecticut in 2011.