For many years, Matt Lottich was one of the best basketball ambassadors that Japan has ever had. He made big contributions on a consistent basis. He respected the game and played it the right way.

Above all, the cerebral guard understood what it took to win.

Those traits are now defining trademarks in Lottich’s blossoming coaching career, the big chapter in his professional life after big-time success in pro basketball here. Lottich is in his first season at the helm at Valparaiso University.

The biggest coaching assignment of his brief time in charge will take place on Wednesday, when Lottich leads the Valparaiso University men’s team (7-1), which has won four straight games, against the host and No. 1-ranked University of Kentucky, which is guided by college coaching legend John Calipari. Indeed, it’s a remarkable opportunity for Lottich to test his players and his coaching acumen against one of the all-time greats.

“It is not every day that you get to play the No. 1 team in the country and especially a team that has the history that Kentucky has,” Lottich told Hoop Scoop. “The best thing about our team is they love challenges and it is no doubt a big challenge to go into Rupp Arena and play the Wildcats.

“We are looking forward to the challenge and opportunity that this game provides.”

The Crusaders, the NIT runner-up in April in then-coach Bryce Drew’s final game at the helm, extended their winning streak to four by beating 21st-ranked Rhode Island 65-62 on Tuesday.

“Rhode Island was a great win and definitely a confidence booster but it is another positive step to building the goals that we have set for our program,” Lottich remarked. “Ultimately we want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year so we are very concerned with getting ourselves better every day.”

Under Lottich, who starred in the bj-league from 2005-12, save for a one-year stint in Germany with the Dusseldorf Giants (2008-09), high expectations remain for Valparaiso, an Indiana-based Horizon League school. The Crusaders were the unanimous preseason pick to win the league.

“My main goal as a head coach is to field a team that is unselfish, competitive and relentless,” commented the 34-year-old Lottich, who was one of the driving forces of the Osaka Evessa’s championship three-peat in the bj-league’s first three seasons (2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08). “I want my team to be very confident on the offensive end and very disciplined defensively. I very much want them to enjoy the game. So often basketball at this level can be so stressful.

“If we are having fun, I think we play that much better.”

Before taking over as Valpo’s new bench boss in April, the Illinois native worked as an assistant coach for the team for three seasons.

Lottich has been a good fit for the Crusaders, who embraced continuity by finding Drew’s replacement within the program. Drew, whose father Homer guided the program from the 1990s and early years in the 21st century, left Valpo to take over at Vanderbilt University.

“Being an assistant coach at the university where I am now the head coach was so valuable for me because I felt that I really understood what type of student-athlete would be successful,” Lottich said. “In recruiting it is essential to fill your program with individuals that fit the culture you are trying to build within your team, that have a feel for the type of basketball that you want to play and have a love for the game and the university that is bigger than any individual goals they might have.”

Asked if the high expectations that others have for Valpo is a healthy challenge for his team, Lottich responded by noting, “I like high expectations but the reality is they do not mean much. We have team goals and included in those team goals is finishing at the top of the conference. Regardless of our preseason ranking we would still put the pressure on ourselves to win the Horizon League.”

Last season, the Crusaders had a school-record 30 victories and seven losses. Indeed, Lottich has been able to build off that team’s success. In November, they beat Alabama (coached by former NBA player and coach Avery Johnson), Brigham Young University and Ball State. They fell to fourth-ranked Oregon 76-54 on Nov. 17 in the Pacific Northwest. They bounced back by topping Alabama four days later.

Sure, Lottich, one of the youngest head coaches in the NCAA Division I ranks (according to a Minneapolis Star-Tribune article, there are only 12 head coaches age 34 or younger as of Nov. 15, including 32-year-olds Dana Ford of Tennessee State and Bashir Mason of Wagner), isn’t on the court, but his fierce competitive drive shines through in his players.

“My whole life I have been a competitor and have tried to win everything I have ever done,” Lottich told Hoop Scoop. “As my playing career progressed and I no longer had the physical gifts that I once possessed, I had to think the game more and find other areas to contribute. That is when I really started to think that coaching was in my future. The game slowed down for me and I was able to remain successful as a player but I did it differently.”

He went on: “I want the teams I coach to have the same desire for competition that I have and I want them to be able to react to the game strategically like any good player can do.”

Lottich brought winning ways to the Evessa and Oita HeatDevils, his employer from 2009-12, and a stellar all-around game that Japan hoop fans appreciated and celebrated.

In a column (“Lottich’s old-school ways find niche in 2008”) written by my Japan Times colleague Jack Gallagher, the former Stanford University guard summed up his game this way: “I’m not the most athletic guy. I have to find other ways to contribute. Playing hard and playing to win are what I’m all about.”

Matt Lottich also paid tribute to his college mentor Mike Montgomery in the same column.

“He taught us that basketball is a game of inches — every possession, every pass is important,” Lottich said in 2008. “We focused on how to do the little things right.”

In a recent conversation, former Stanford forward Josh Childress, now 33, who joined the B. League’s San-en NeoPhoenix in late November, recalled Lottich, his two-season college teammate, as a natural choice to lead a D-I team someday.

“He’s extremely fiery,” Childress, the No. 6 pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, said, “and very animated, but also he was one of the big brothers in the locker room who always had a voice and was one of our leaders on our team. So I’m not surprised and I’m happy that he’s doing well (at Valparaiso).”

Does Lottich have a tailor-made personality to be a head coach?

“Yeah, for sure,” Childress offered, ” because he is incredibly smart from a basketball perspective and he’s emotional. So as a player if you feel that emotion coming from your coach it helps you play harder and it pushes you to try to be as best as you can be.”

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