Thursday, March 14, 2013
"There are opportunities in life you shouldn't let pass you by. I've worked hard to seize those opportunities. My years at Valpo have made me better - a better student, a better teammate, a better father, a Crusader...it's who I am. I am Erik Buggs, and I am Valpo."
You'd be forgiven if you thought the Crusader point guard had uttered these words in the post-game press conference Tuesday night after Valparaiso's Horizon League title game win over Wright State. After all, Buggs had just played the game of his life in the biggest game of his life, scoring a career-high 22 points and earning league tournament MVP honors. To paraphrase his statement, he hadn't let the opportunity pass him by - rather, he had seized it.
But, in fact, those words came from the mouth of Erik Buggs in a video shot almost a full month before the first exhibition game of his final season, as he was preparing for a season in which he would help lead the Crusaders back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004. They were spoken four years into a five-year career which has seen a multitude of ups and downs, a ride which has currently ascended to its highest point yet.
Buggs came to Valpo in the fall of 2008 with his freshman-year role on the team seemingly well defined. The Crusaders returned a pair of senior starters in the backcourt in Jake Diebler and Brandon McPherson, a veteran duo who Buggs would be able to study and learn from while coming off the bench as a rookie.
But plans changed. McPherson was injured and missed most of the season, thrusting Buggs into the starting point guard role as an 18-year-old rookie. Individually, he struggled - scoring less than five points per game while committing more turnovers than assists - while the Crusaders as a team earned just nine victories, the program's worst season in 17 years.
"It was really rough," said Buggs. "I had just come from high school, where we were really successful and had just gone to the state championship game. Valpo was coming off a pretty decent year - but then getting here and getting thrown in there, it was tough. But it was a good learning experience - it gave me an opportunity to learn what it is like to be down."
Then, as if the struggles of his freshman year were not enough, injury struck down the Memphis native. A stress fracture in his leg, suffered late in his freshman year, ending up costing him the vast majority of his second year on campus, relegating Buggs to the sideline as Valpo finished the season under .500 for the second straight year.
"That was hard because it was my first major injury which caused me to miss significant time," said Buggs. "It was definitely rough sitting back watching after having a really bad year, not being able to play. But I learned a lot on the sidelines, especially being next to Coach Bryce and his point of view, and I think that helped me grow as a leader."
While his first two years as a Crusader went nothing like he would have desired, Buggs says he didn't waver in his feeling that he had chosen the right place to go on his collegiate journey.
"I always felt like we had a really strong camaraderie here at Valpo, and that's what brought me here in the first place," said Buggs. "I saw that it was a family environemnt, and I knew how successful Coach Homer and Coach Bryce and the rest of the staff had been. I knew how hard they were working to turn things around, and when they brought in the class that included Matt [Kenney] and Ryan [Broekhoff], I knew we would eventually get back on the right foot."
The journey would soon take a turn for the better for Buggs, both on and off the court. He returned to action for the 2010-2011 season and started nearly every game as a redshirt sophomore, helping lead the Crusaders to 23 victories and a postseason berth. Even more rewarding for Buggs, however, was the birth of his daughter Kyleigh in November of 2010, something he credits with helping him grow as a man.
"A lot of that came from having good parents that were there to support me," said Buggs. "My team and my coaches - they were always there as well, and all helped me along the way. Having a daughter just accelerated that growing process, because now I have responsibilities that I have to take care of. Just having a good support system made that transition a lot easier."
On the court, Buggs helped the Crusaders prove the pundits wrong during his redshirt junior season in 2011-2012, as Valpo captured the Horizon League regular season title after being chosen to finish in fifth place in the preseason. But the ultimate goal, the NCAA Tournament, remained out of reach, thanks to a Detroit second-half rally in the league championship game on the Crusaders' home court.
"All year, we knew that we had a team that could win the league," said Buggs. "That was our goal. The year before, we were in first place up until the last couple weeks, so we knew we were capable. We were using being picked fifth as motivation to do what we needed to do and putting in extra work to get to that point. Obviously getting there and falling just short hurt a lot, and it was something that we kept in our mind throughout the summer and preseason workouts - to help push us to work even harder so the same result wouldn't happen again."
This season, Buggs has enjoyed his finest overall season while serving as a leader of a veteran squad - a team which sees themselves as more than just a team.
"I would just say that us being as close as we are off the court makes it a lot easier when we get on the court," said Buggs. "We know each other's strengths and weaknesses, and then we know things about each other that only family members would know. The basketball part is easy when you get it to that point, where you really are as much of a family as you are a basketball team."
Personally, Buggs was named to the Horizon League All-Defensive Team and moved into Valpo's single-season top-10 in steals, while also breaking the program's career games played record. He has done all this while also working toward's his master's degree in sports media after receiving his bachelor's degree in May of 2012.
But, like any of the Crusaders will tell you, the team's accomplishments are first and foremost, and Buggs has helped the team check off a number of their goals for the season. Valpo captured its second straight regular season title and advanced to the league championship game thanks to a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Ryan Broekhoff in the semifinal.
But with Wright State limiting Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk, the Crusaders' two All-League players, to just 17 combined points in the championship game, Valpo needed somebody to seize the opportunity, and Buggs stepped up, making his preseason words prescient. He scored a career-high 22 points - breaking his previous best of 16 points, set in his third career game, 1,573 days prior to the title game - and also came up with four steals as the Crusaders won the tournament title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.
"It meant a lot," said Buggs on his performance in the title game. "Just being able to play my last game at home and go out that way, in front of fans that have helped support team throughout the down years - it was great to be able to leave them with that image."
There's still one more goal Buggs, the other five seniors, and the Crusader men's basketball program want to accomplish - not just playing in the NCAA Tournament, but winning an NCAA Tournament game. But regardless of the result in the tournament, Buggs' journey over his five years as a Crusader has made him a better person, while at the same time he has competed as a great representative of Valparaiso University throughout his career. He is Erik Buggs, and he is Valpo.