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Sports

Valparaiso shooting for senior moment

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — There’s no such thing as one and done at Valparaiso.

The Crusaders earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004 with one of the most seasoned teams in college basketball.

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When 14th-seeded Valparaiso shoots to upset third-seeded Michigan State on Thursday, experience will be on its side even though the Spartans are in the tourney for a 16th consecutive year.

‘‘It scares me a little bit,’’ Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

The Crusaders start five seniors, two of whom are in their fifth seasons, and their nine-man rotation includes only upperclassmen.

Only Colorado State has had more games started by seniors this season than Valpo among teams in the NCAA Tournament, according to STATS LLC. The Crusaders’ seniors combined to start 160 games and help the school win a program-record 26.

‘‘Having so many experienced players has really come out in pivotal points throughout the season,’’ said senior forward Ryan Broekhoff, who leads the team with 15.9 points and 7.3 rebounds a game. ‘‘There’s been times where we’ve been playing bad and we’ve been down double digits maybe in the second half. Having that experienced group, that core group of guys, you know, sticking together, we kind of work through situations that maybe in years past we would have folded.’’

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Michigan State’s lone senior, Derrick Nix, was almost sent packing more than once during his turbulent stay with the Spartans.

The 6-foot-9-inch, 270-pound center struggled with his weight earlier in his career ,and his choices as recently as a couple months ago. He was suspended from the team last summer, then reinstated after pleading guilty to impaired driving. Nix hit another speed bump in January, missing some academic appointments and being forced to sit at the start of a game against Illinois in January.

‘‘It’s been a good and bad four years,’’ Nix said. ‘‘I’ve experienced a lot and I’ve have matured a lot. I’m so grateful to be here. Coach sticking with me through my ups and downs, I appreciate it.’’

Nix weighed as much as 340 pounds in high school — splitting time between Detroit Pershing and Murray Wright — when he often ate a large pizza and washed it down with 2 liters of soda before games.

He has reshaped his body, game, and life.

Nix trimmed down to 266 entering his sophomore season, then almost ate himself off the team. He gained so much weight back that Izzo left him home when the team went to the Maui Invitational.

He played in 36 games, including 16 starts as a freshman, to help the Spartans play in the NCAA final, but couldn’t assist much at the line, making just 13 of 48 free throws. Now, he’s a 72 percent shooter at the line and averages 9.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.6 assists as a crafty passer out of the post. He makes steals with his deceptive quickness.

And, Nix has put himself in a position off the court to graduate in May.

‘‘It’s probably the most fun to take a guy that you’re not sure would have made it academically, athletically, or socially and you see it turn around,’’ Izzo said. ‘‘You see a guy making it probably means more in the long run than the Final Fours because you really, truly did help a guy get better. That’s what we all should be doing, especially us as coaches or teachers.’’

Valpo is led by a coach who made what is known as ‘‘The Shot’’ in the 1998 NCAA Tournament.

Bryce Drew’s leaning 3-pointer, off a short pass that followed a long heave, just before the buzzer lifted the Crusaders to an upset victory over Mississippi in the first round and has become an enduring highlight replayed each year in March. Back then, he was coached by his father, Homer, and later worked for him before taking over the program two years ago.

Valpo won the Horizon League title in the regular season last season, but didn’t get a bid to the NCAAs after routing Butler in the conference tournament semifinals and having a lopsided loss.

‘‘Real excited for our seniors,’’ Drew said. ‘‘They wanted to make the NCAA Tournament. We had a tough loss last year against Detroit in our conference finals and I think they had a chip on their shoulder all year to get back to that point and have the opportunity to come to the NCAA Tournament.

‘‘They know this is their first and only NCAA Tournament and I think we’re all excited.’’

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