Before each of the last two seasons, the Drake men’s basketball squad has garnered the top recruiting class in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Head coach Mark Phelps and his coaching staff have been able to attract top-caliber players for Drake’s basketball program in his two-year tenure. But when looking at some of the schools the Bulldogs compete against every year, one has to wonder, how does Drake get highly-rated recruits to come here?
“One of the things I like to say a lot is that at Drake, you won’t take a backseat academically, and you won’t take a backseat basketball-wise,” Phelps said. “And there are not a lot of places throughout the country that you can make that statement boldly and be able to follow through.”
Drake has to compete with competitive programs in its region, such as Northern Iowa, Iowa State, Creighton and Iowa. Not only that, but it also competes with other Big Ten schools that target talent from the Midwest. Clearly, Drake has to offer more than just basketball to convince top-notch players to play here.
“More than anything, you have to make that young man feel very special, and every case is different.” Phelps said. “(We find out) what are things that are important to him, and you just really emphasize those things that your program, your school, your university are going to be able to do to help him reach those goals.”
Among the notable recruits in Phelps’ time at Drake are freshman Rayvonte Rice, who won the 2009-10 Gatorade Illinois High School Player of the Year award, and freshman Karl Madison, who redshirted this season. He also lured sophomores Seth VanDeest and Ben Simons the year before.
“You really sell the attributes of Drake University; a world-class university, one of the best cities in America to live, a tradition-rich conference with the Missouri Valley,” Phelps said. “And then obviously you get into the basketball side of things where our culture is one where we really want to take care of the players.”
Simons believes the coaches put a lot of effort into going after players and is not surprised by the kind of talent Drake attracts.
“It’s a tribute to how hard the coaches work,” Simons said. “They really sell you (on) coming to Drake.”
Simons has continued to expand his offensive game and has become a more consistent all-around player for the Bulldogs.
“They had just come off a good season and they have great tradition,” Simons said about choosing Drake. “I really like the atmosphere, and I enjoyed the people on the team.”
Then there’s Rice, who had a terrific freshman campaign, averaging 13.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, leading the team in both categories.
“In my visit, the coaches really just made me feel comfortable, showed me where I fit in on the offense and on the defense, showed me how we would be a successful team,” Rice said.
The Bulldogs had an inconsistent season in 2010-11. Despite boasting wins over Creighton and Northern Iowa, they finished 13-18 before bowing out in the first round of the State Farm Missouri Valley Conference Tournament against Bradley.
“We weren’t that successful this year, but we just got to work harder to be successful next year,” Rice said.
Simons is confident that the team will continue to grow and believes there’s a bright future for the Bulldogs.
“We are building toward something special here,” Simons said. “You can’t really know what it’s going to be until you experience it.”
The Bulldogs’ recent struggles certainly do not have to do with the talent of this team, but rather its youth.
Drake has five freshmen and seven sophomores, and it surely has been a learning curve for the Bulldogs, as their record shows. But having such a young and lively team is something that Rice has enjoyed in his first year at Drake.
“It’s a lot of fun to play with a group of guys your age. Really, the chemistry is going to be there,” Rice said. “They are going to know as much as you know about basketball. It’s going to feel good to play with a couple of young guys.”
As long as the squad remains committed to improving, Drake will feel confident with the level of talent that keeps coming in and hopefully the results will pay off.
“I’m really happy with the guys we have. I love each and every one of them,” Phelps said. “I think they are all still right on schedule to fulfill their potential, and we know that once that happens, we’ll have some special times with those guys.”