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Young Bradley starting to take form under Wardle

March 3, 2017 Columns No Comments

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – Ever so slowly, one of the Missouri Valley Conference’s historic programs is starting to work its way back into becoming a factor again after a long climb.

If one is looking for eye-popping jumps in the record, they’re not going to find it with Bradley in the first two years of the Brian Wardle era. What they will find is a program that absolutely is making measurable progress, as evidenced by its 67-58 win over Drake Thursday night in a first round game of the 2017 MVC Tournament.

Advancing out of a first round game matching 7 and 10 seeds at a conference tournament may not sound like much of an achievement, but it is for the Braves, who will play on Friday for just the second time in six years and will gain more seasoning for a team filled with freshmen and sophomores.

“We needed this,” said Wardle. “It’s a good step for our program just to win a tournament game, just to get a feel for the tournament. Survive and advance. This is March. This is what it’s all about.”

Hyper-young Bradley is starting four freshmen at the end of this, the second year for Wardle after he came down to Peoria from Wisconsin-Green Bay. The young team admittedly battled some nerves early Thursday night but is finishing the season on an upswing, with four straight wins now heading into a quarterfinal matchup with Valley bully Wichita State Friday night.

Bradley defeated Drake for the third time this season and the second time in six days by winning a typical MVC grinder. It was close the entire way-only once did either team have a double-digit lead, and the Bulldogs’ quickly chopped the Braves’ 11-point first half margin down to five by halftime-and, as Wardle noted, it came down to players making plays.

“They made a couple of adjustments in the first half that caught us off guard,” said Wardle. “They sat on a couple of our plays we like to go to. Then it comes down a lot to just personnel. You don’t score a ton off your plays this time of year, especially in a league where you’ve been playing everyone so much.

“It comes down to one-on-one, knowing who you’re defending and what they like to do. You’re going to have some ugly games this time of year, and I’m just proud of this team to respond.”

Chief among those making plays was Donte Thomas, the lone junior in that starting five and a certifiable Drake killer this year. A 6-foot-7 bull inside, Thomas was held scoreless in the first half and even acquired some stitches on his brow after taking a blow while battling for position inside in the first half, but he erupted in the final 20 minutes, scoring all 17 of his points.

In three games against the Bulldogs this year, Thomas averaged 19.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and shot an incredible 80%, well above his season averages of 7.8 points and 6.7 rebounds.

“Not really,” Thomas said when asked after the game if there was anything particular that sets him up to dominate the Bulldogs. “They’re just a very physical team. I think that kind of gets me going. Obviously I got stitches in the first half. So I think that just kind of kept me going. I needed to be more aggressive.”

The MVC is one of the lowest scoring conferences in NCAA Division I (28th of 32 leagues), and it is toughness and defense that wins in the Valley. And Bradley is learning to play that game quite well.

To no surprise for those who saw Wardle’s teams at Green Bay, the team’s intensity on the defensive end is noticeable. The Braves hustle, communicate, extend, and they held a good perimeter shooting team to 32.8% shooting, including 4 of 22 from three-point land. Even if you’re not a connoisseur of defense, it’s fun to watch and easy to appreciate.

Offensively, Bradley is still a work in progress. Other than promising freshman guard Darrell Brown, the team does not have consistent double-figure scorers. It does have multiple players who can pick it up, though-besides Thomas, sophomore Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye made some big plays off the bench, helping spark the offense in the first half and finishing with 11 points.

“I think that was definitely my mindset coming in,” said Lautier-Ogunleye of bringing energy off the bench. “I think I can be an energy spark and I know I can bring the team some energy. We were a bit, not down, but a bit sluggish. Everyone had a bit of jitters, I guess, being in a big arena. I’ve played in the conference tournament, so I tried to help everyone get going. This is March. This is what we wait for. I was just trying to feed myself and the rest of the team.”

Brown and fellow frosh center Koch Bar were both named to the Valley all-freshman team. (Bar in particular is a very intriguing prospect, measuring at 6-foot-11 and blocking 41 shots this year). Aussie Jayden Hodgson and in-state product Nate Kennell also are starting as freshmen, while sophomore Luuk van Bree comes off the bench now and at this point is one of the most experienced players on the team.

Bradley has been down for some time-it hasn’t even been out of a play-in game at Arch Madness since 2010, but many forget just how much of a titan it used to be in the MVC. The Braves have won four NIT championships and been to two Final Fours. More recently, there were the Hersey Hawkins years in the 80s, and even a Sweet 16 appearance in 2006.

Just as much, Bradley regularly ranked in the top 50 in the nation in attendance for years, with a rabid fan base that had waned in recent years, but is starting to come back. Quite simply: the MVC is better when Bradley is better.

The Braves are not a finished product by any means yet. They probably won’t be next year, either. But they’re coming.

“I’m very happy for them,” Wardle said of his team afterwards. “I mean, we’ve worked very hard this year and last year building a culture, raising expectations and standards every year. They’ve trusted the process. Even though you don’t always see the results, you’ve got to keep them focused every day on blocking out noise and just staying the course of what we’re trying to do.

“(Wichita State) is going to be a great test for us, but I’m excited for our program. I’m excited for these young guys to have this experience, and we’re going to go in there and compete, I know that. Our effort and energy in practice has been tremendous in February, and the competitiveness is going to continue to be there. So we’re going to get out there and throw it up and see what we’ve got.”

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