BBy DRAKE LOHSE
A LOOK BACK: DARIEN DEVRIES FIRST YEAR ON THE JOB
It’s strange how fast things change. Walk through the Knapp Center these days, and the silence feels like a far cry from the days when the arena roared like the Superdome. The echoes are eery.
“Once the season stops, you’re still in a live recruiting period,” Drake head coach Darian DeVries said. “But you have some built in dead weeks, where you’re not allowed to do anything or have anybody here. But outside that, it’s pretty full-go.”
Hearing Coach DeVries talk of recruiting should be enough to excite any Drake fan. After being brought on to replace Niko Medved, Darian DeVries put together a coaching staff full of first timers. Larry Blunt, Marty Richter and Matt Woodley all joined DeVries for their first years at Drake.
DeVries and his coaching staff quickly assembled one of the most formidable recruiting classes in recent Bulldog memory. When DeVries first signed on as the head coach, the former Creighton assistant inherited a roster with only six returning players, and only one returning starter.
“Despite the circumstances, we were still pretty selective about who we went out and recruited. Our challenge as a staff was that we had 10 scholarships open,” DeVries said. “But I didn’t want to fill them with guys who I didn’t think wouldn’t fit what we’d be about long term. We were fortunate to get some high character guys that play the game with a certain toughness.”
In a little over a month, Drake had landed six recruits. Graduate transfers Brady Ellingson and Nick Norton, Florida Southwestern transfers Tremell and Anthony Murphy, transfer guard Roman Penn, and true freshman Liam Robbins.
“When we all met for those first few weeks in the summer for workouts, you could tell this was going to be a really fun group of guys to work with,” DeVries said, “they were all hungry, they all just wanted to win and improve.”
The only thing left to do was play basketball. DeVries made it known early, he wanted this team to play fast and hard, and he had the team to do just that.
Bulldog fans got the first glimpse of their new-look team in early November. Drake opened the season hosting Buena Vista. The Bulldogs took care of business against the Beavers, winning the game by over 40 points.
The team traveled to Boulder the following week. Colorado Buffalo gave Drake a taste of their own medicine, sending the Bulldogs back to Des Moines on the wrong side of a 100-71 loss.
The disappointment in Colorado wouldn’t be the only setback of the season. The team had already lost promising guard and Newton native Connor Gholson early in the Buena Vista game to a gruesome leg injury.
The Bulldogs responded, as they would all year. Drake would go 10-and-1 over the next 11 games, their only loss in December coming against Iowa State. The team rode the momentum of a five-game win streak all the way into Evansville in the first week of January.
Drake hadn’t cleared all the roadblocks of the season yet. Early in the first half, senior Nick Norton suffered his third ACL tear driving to the basket. Upon returning to Des Moines, he was ruled out for the remainder of the season.
Norton was in the midst of a convincing season. He was awarded Player of the Week and Newcomer of the Week by the MVC, after recording Drake Basketball’s second ever triple-double.
“Nick’s injury was difficult for us,” DeVries said. “Just the timing of it, we’re just starting league play, and we had built a lot around Nick. He had the ball in his hands a lot, we were using him a lot for these quick-hitters. He was the guy coming off for a shot, making a decision, or screening, especially, because no one wanted to leave him. He got other guys open a lot of different ways.”
Still adjusting to the loss of Norton, Drake dropped the following game to Loyola-Chicago. The team handed point-guard duties to Australia native Noah Thomas.
“[Noah and Nick] have a completely different set of strengths,” DeVries said. “So we really had to try to adjust on the fly. Everything else was the same in terms of playing fast, with Noah, he has an elite level speed. I thought it took a couple of games to really make that adjustment, but once they did, those new roles really became established. ”
The Bulldogs would again embark on their signature streak. Over a 10 day stretch, Drake defeated Bradley, Missouri State, Valparaiso and Evansville. The streak kept them alive in MVC standings.
There’s a long list of reasons why Darian DeVries was given Coach of The Year honors by the MVC at the end of the season. Third-most single season wins in program history.
Fourth-most conference wins by a Drake team. His debut season was the second most successful by a first-year head coach at Drake, behind only Keno Davis’ 28 wins in 2008. DeVries had more wins than any other rookie head coach in the nation this season, and was the first rookie head coach to win the MVC title since 1980.
But more than anything, what stands out about Drake’s head coach is a collected on-court presence.
“I think you have to coach to your personality, and be who you are,” DeVries said. “I think over my career, from how I started to now, I’ve changed how I approach the game. I think there’s things you need to let go and things you need to hone in on. The biggest thing for me, going into this first year, was just instilling as much confidence as possible.Your teams always going to look to you, and feed off you. There’s times I want them to feed off my calmness, there’s times I want them to feed off my enthusiasm, because there’s times when you need to adjust.”
Fans will never see Coach DeVries hurling a chair or screaming at a referee. It’s hard not to wonder how much his calm coaching style helped anchor his team over the various ups and downs of his first campaign.
As the season approached it’s final leg, the Bulldogs needed to batten down the hatches more than ever. The team spent the last third of the year locked in a battle for the top MVC spot. The competition was ferocious, and included a stretch that saw Drake tied, in sole possession of, and tied once more for the number one seed in under 24 hours.
Not until the final game of the season, a road trip to Missouri State, did the Bulldogs capture a share of the MVC Title. The team won the opening round of the MVC Tournament against Illinois State, before a second round exit at the hands of U.N.I. After losing senior Nick McGlynn to a knee injury, the Bulldogs entered the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Drake fell to Southern Utah University in the opening matchup.
“As far as first-year head coaches, working with a hand full of new guys, I don’t think you could have asked for anything better in terms of establishing a culture,” DeVries said. “For the guys that are returning next year and the new guys coming in, they’ve set a really good foundation for this program going forward.”
Despite the tough loss, the transition from DeVries’ first season to his second has been seamless. Already, the team has gained explosive, tenacious recruits. Nate Ferguson, Issa Samake, and Joseph Yesufu have all committed to don the blue and white. Seniors Nick McGlynn, Nick Norton and Brady Ellingson all depart following the whirlwind first year.
The recruiting process may never be as frenzied as it was to open this season, when the first-year head coach had to resort to three-on-three practices. Darian DeVries and the coaching staff has earned the ability to take their time this offseason. But that doesn’t mean the MVC Coach of the Year doesn’t take the time every once in awhile to think back to that first day on campus.
“My advice going into it would have been to enjoy it as much as possible,” DeVries said. “That’s what I’ve really tried to do. No matter how stressful some parts of it may have been, I’ve just tried to keep a smile on. And that’s what I try to tell my players, is yeah, we’re going to work, but let’s make sure we’re having fun.”
Photo courtesy of Drake Athletics