Photo: Taylor Soule
The men’s basketball squad opened its doors to the media, and to a new season, on Monday afternoon for its annual media day.
Drake comes into this season with six returning players (five who have started at some point in their Drake career) and plenty of new faces. The Bulldogs can’t wait to get their season underway.
“There’s obviously a lot of excitement for the beginning of every season, and it’s no different here at Drake,” said head coach Mark Phelps. “I’m really encouraged by our team. I’m encouraged by our work so far. I think we have a real togetherness and camaraderie and chemistry.”
The Bulldogs welcome five freshmen to their squad: Kori Babineaux, Joey King, Micah Mason, Robert Puleikis and Daddy Ugbede. In addition to that, Drake added fifth-year senior Chris Hines, senior Matt Bowie (former Drake football player) and a pair of junior college transfers in Gary Ricks Jr. and Richard Carter.
Even if the Bulldogs are sporting a brand new team, the core of this squad remains with fifth-year senior Jordan Clarke and senior Ben Simons. Simons is coming off a season that saw him average 16.4 points per game in the Missouri Valley Conference, earning him a second team All-MVC selection. Clarke is the heart and soul of Drake’s defense, always drawing the opposing team’s best post presence.
Drake will also incorporate redshirt junior Seth VanDeest back into the mix after VanDeest sat out all of last season after undergoing shoulder surgery in July 2011. He will allow Clarke to slide back to his natural position (power forward) and help shoulder some of the load on offense.
Despite losing two of its top three scorers, Phelps believes this is a more talented offensive squad.
“I feel like we’re a better scoring team. We’re a better passing team. We’re a more skilled team this year in all five years, and I really believe we have guys in our program that can score,” Phelps said. “Ben Simons, I think is going to be one of the better scorers in our league. You reintroduce Seth VanDeest, a bigger, better, stronger Seth VanDeest. He’s a guy that we didn’t have the luxury of throwing the ball into the post last year. We’re really trusting him to make the right play.”
The Bulldogs will have to replace sophomore standout Rayvonte Rice (who transferred to Illinois) and senior Kurt Alexander. Rice averaged 16.8 points per game, while Alexander averaged 8.5 points per game coming off the bench.
In order to fill the departed offensive void, Drake will rely on Hines. Hines averaged 9.6 points per game last season with Utah, starting on 26 games.
“You look at Chris Hines, a fifth-year senior from the Pac-12 who can score. You can pretty much count on Chris Hines to be just as good as he was last year in the Pac-12,” Phelps said.
Drake is also hoping redshirt sophomores Karl Madison and Jeremy Jeffers, both starters last season, continue to make strides.
“Both of those guys were starters last year, and I think they’re helping us with maintaining and growing our culture as a basketball program,” Phelps said. “They’re going to be pushed by some newcomers, and they’re going to push some newcomers, so I think it’s a healthy relationship.”
Those newcomers are already working hard to adapt to the rigors of a Division I basketball program.
“Working out in the spring and the summer definitely helped me out a lot because I was really undersized for my height, so putting on 10, 15 pounds over the summer really got me into a position where I would be able to compete and play against the bigger players in our league,” King said.
The competition for a starting nod will start tonight, when the Bulldogs tip-off in their annual Primetime Preview at 7 p.m. in the Knapp Center.
“We’ve got to be ready early. We’ve got to be ready to go at our first practice on Thursday. We can’t have any lulls, we can’t have any breaks, we can’t wait until the conference season to get our stuff together,” Clarke said. “We have to get quick and focus every practice and every game.”
Tonight will mark the start of a team that Phelps believes will continue to get better as the year goes along.
“We want to continue to play with a great pace on the offensive end. We want to continue to be aggressive and be in attack mode on the defensive end, extend our defense a little bit more than we have in the past and use our depth,” Phelps said. “If we reach our potential and stay relatively healthy, I think this could be a very exciting team. This could be a team that continues to build and grow and get better as the season goes along.”