VALPARAISO, Ind. — Alec Peters was used to letting the game come to him.
The versatile 6-9 forward was as efficient as they come, shooting right around 50% from the floor with a beautiful in-and-out game the past three seasons in former Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew's patient offensive schemes.
This season as a senior, with a rookie head coach and new-look roster, Peters threw efficiency out the window and has a new mindset as an alpha dog who puts the team on his back.
"It's a takeover mindset. A light switch goes on," Peters said. "You sort of look at your teammates and they look at you like it's time to go to work."
That assertiveness has made Peters, a projected NBA draft first or second round pick next summer, one of the best players in the country. Despite dipping to 43% shooting from the floor with an average of six more shots per game this year, he's averaging 25.4 points — which ranks second in the country — and 9.1 rebounds, not to mention 94% mark from the free-throw line.
First-year coach Matt Lottich took over a Crusaders program rich in Drew history; Bryce, who left for Vanderbilt after five seasons, succeeded his father, Homer, who coached Valpo for 22 seasons, one of which included Bryce's memorable shot that became a signature March Madness moment.
Fittingly, though, Lottich takes the reins with the perfect opportunity to change the program's identity behind perhaps the most talented player in school history. Valparaiso (7-1), which got points in this week's USA TODAY Sports coaches poll and has only lost on the road at Oregon, faces No. 7 Kentucky on Wednesday with a chance to make a major statement. It's also an opportunity for Peters to showcase his abilities in front of NBA scouts there to see the Wildcats' potential lottery picks.
"The last couple of years, I wasn't a guy who took many shots," Peters said. "Coach Drew put me in a spot where things would open up. This year, our team identity is much different. Coach Lottich told me this year, 'I want you to go out and score the basketball.' That's been my mindset every game, whether I make 20 shots or miss 20 shots. I'm going to keep being aggressive. Coach Lottich has put in a lot of new stuff on offense for all of us to be successful in our own way. He's developing into a great head coach and locker room leader."
Peters, the team's go-to player the past two seasons, has drawn more NBA scouts himself to rural Indiana, and he's redefined the typical path to a pro basketball future for borderline high-major recruits.
"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I mean, look at the facilities. It's not the nicest in the world here but it's a great atmosphere," said Peters, pointing to Valpo's Hoosiers-esque gym with an indoor track hovering over the court. "And it's perfect if you want to play right away. I got thrown right into the fire and that experience is super beneficial now. I would tell guys in my situation coming out of high school, if you're a fringe high-major player or maybe mid-major player, I'd say go where you're gonna play right away."
Much of that small school culture, along with his teammates, made Peters' choice to hold off on the NBA an easy one, he said. Despite losing a pool of talent from last season's 30-7 team that missed the NCAA tournament after an unexpected Horizon League tournament exit, this year's roster features a veteran core, including fellow senior Shane Hammink (15.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg). However, the Crusaders only utilize a six-man rotation, so Peters said the older players' leadership is key to turn this into a potential Cinderella team come March.
"I came back because of those guys in that locker room, the guys I've been battling with. You're not gonna get that anywhere else," said Peters, a Washington, Ill., native who never was expected to blossom into a future NBA talent yet his evolution — through growing and becoming more athletic — have lured in NBA talent evaluators. "It's crazy to think that (the NBA) could be a reality, but I'm just really focused on enjoying my last season and doing something special. I'll cross that bridge when the time comes.
"This season, I've been focusing on the 15-foot area, that was my main focus of improvement the entire summer — to score more than just shooting the three, and then posting up and finishing. My catch and face-up game is what I'm getting better at."
His mid-range improvement was on full display in the Crusaders' upset win of then-No. 25 Rhode Island on Nov. 29. Peters had 27 points and scored a majority of his buckets after squaring up in the 15-foot range, either shooting or driving past athletic defenders. He also went a perfect 10-for-10 from the charity stripe in that game.
"He's one heck of a player," Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley said after the game. "One of the best players in the country — not just mid-major, but anywhere."
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