Story by Tad Unruh
Photo by Joel Venzke
Arch Madness is once again upon us. While the sights of spring have yet to show across campus, the squeak of rubber soles on hardwood reigns supreme. Drake will travel to St. Louis for the annual Arch Madness tournament held in the downtown Scottrade Center. At the end of the tournament on Sunday, one Missouri Valley Conference team secures a spot in the Big Dance.
Drake is seeded ninth in the MVC, and will play tonight at 6 p.m. against eighth-seeded Bradley.
This is the tenth meeting of the schools in MVC tournament play with Bradley leading the series by a slim margin of 5-4. This is the third season in a row that both teams will meet in the opening round.
“Well we know them pretty well,” said redshirt senior Jordan Clarke. “(We have) probably played them more than any other team. We just have to execute our game plan.”
Drake comes in with a balanced scoring effort with all five of the Drake starters averaging at least nine points per game.
Senior Ben Simons leads the team with 14.4 points per game. Right behind are seniors Jordan Clarke, averaging 9.6 points and 8.6 rebounds, and Chris Hines with an average of 9.6 points. Redshirt junior Seth VanDeest averages 9.5 points per game, and Richard Carter sits close behind at 9.0 points per game.
Drake head coach Mark Phelps is wary of the Braves’ high-energy backcourt.
“They have two outstanding guards (Dyricus) Simms-Edwards and (Walt) Lemon Jr.,” Phelps said. “They do a terrific job and that’s what makes their teams go. They’ve got other good players, but those guys obviously stand out. They are really disruptive on the defensive end and are in attack mode on the offensive end.”
Lemon Jr. averages 15.5 points per game, and Simms-Edwards averages 12.5 points. Both Braves have wreaked havoc for the Bulldogs in their first two meetings of the season.
The season series was split with the Bulldogs and the Braves each winning a game at their home court.
The first meeting, played in Peoria, Ill., was the conference opener between the two schools in late December. Bradley got the best of Drake, winning 67-57.
The Bulldogs struggled tremendously throughout the game, shooting only 33.9 percent from the floor and 18.5 percent from three-point range while committing 17 turnovers.
The Braves’ back court was extremely hot, as Lemon Jr. scored 23 and Simms-Edwards poured in 20.
Drake used extra time to fend off Bradley 92-84 in the MVC foes’ second meeting in the Knapp Center.
The Bulldogs shot much better from the floor with a 39.7 percent clip and 32 percent from beyond the arc.
Drake got much needed help from senior leaders Clarke, amassing 20 points. Simons and Hines added 14 and 12 points, respectively.
The Braves backcourt still troubled the Bulldogs, though. Lemon Jr. scored 19 points, Simms-Edwards finished with 15. Senior Will Egolf battled with Clarke extensively, tallying 21 points of his own.
Drake was on a three-game win streak starting with the overtime win against Bradley until Southern Illinois stole away Senior Night.
Phelps was positive about gaining momentum.
“It was disappointing, the loss Saturday, for sure, but I think more on their (the players) minds was the way they were playing last several games,” Phelps said. “We won three in a row the last several games on Saturday. We ended up playing against a team that was playing very well. I think our confidence is going to be fine.”
The Bulldogs have to slow down Lemon Jr. in the paint and not allow him to stretch the offense with the three-ball on Thursday. Lemon Jr. plays the most minutes for Bradley and tiring him out early will benefit the Bulldogs.
Drake must take care of the ball in transition and score on the break, tiring out the Braves’ backcourt.
If Drake is able to beat the Braves, it will run into the MVC’s top seed and regular season champion Creighton.
The Bluejays doused the Bulldogs in Omaha by a 91-61 margin on Jan. 8. Drake upended then-No. 17 Creighton 74-69 in the Knapp Center on Jan. 23.
Simons feels anything can happen in March, especially if the team gets on a roll in the first game.
“We know Creighton is a really good team,” Simons said. “They are playing a lot better than they had been. Hopefully we can get a game under our belt. (Once we) get used to playing in the Scottrade Center, we’ll be fine.”
If the Bulldogs pull off that upset, they play the winner of the Evansville and Indiana State matchup.
The other side of the bracket is a roll of the dice, especially with the up-and-down nature of the Missouri Valley Conference.
The Bulldogs, even after playing 30 games this season, are still ready to deliver tonight.
“There is no fatigue when you have one game before you could go home,” Clarke said. “You get over that pretty quickly. If you are a basketball player and love the game, you just have to go do what you’ve got to do.”