Despite returning just one senior and starting the season with 12 freshmen and sophomores, Drake Head Coach Mark Phelps is watching all the pieces to his 2010-2011 team come together.
The third-year Bulldog coach has assembled the top recruiting class in the Missouri Valley Conference for two consecutive years, according to league coaches. Without a winning season in the Valley since Drake’s NCAA tournament appearance in 2008, fans are ready to see results. Phelps believes this young squad has enough weapons to make noise in the MVC.
“I like the chemistry we’re starting to develop,” he said. “We have a lot of newcomers this year, much like last year, so we’re in the same boat.”
Drake returns six sophomores from last year’s squad, the first of Phelps’ top recruiting classes. Phelps is excited about how much each has improved in the offseason, especially center Seth VanDeest, who grew another inch and added 20 pounds to his frame.
“We told him to grow an inch, he did. We told him to put on weight, he did,” Phelps said of his 6-11, 238-pound sophomore captain. “There’s a little chip on his shoulder the way he plays.”
VanDeest, who made the MVC All-Freshman team last season, has established himself as one of the conference’s best post players. He started all 33 games last season while averaging 8.5 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. His career-high 45 blocks set a Drake freshman single-season record, and was good for second in the Valley.
VanDeest said he is more prepared for the season-long grind after a year of experience and a summer in the weight room.
“It’s a long season,” he said. “I got a taste of it last year, and I’ll take that experience into this year.”
The Bulldogs will look to VanDeest and senior co-captain Ryan Wedel for leadership. Wedel is the team’s top returning scorer from last season, averaging 11.1 points per game. He played half the season at point guard, but with the added depth at that position, Wedel will return to his preferred shooting guard role.
“I feel a lot more comfortable from the two-spot, playing off the ball,” said Drake’s top three-point shooter from last season.
One of the biggest questions the Bulldogs face is who will step up to replace the school’s all-time scoring leader, Josh Young. Young was an exceptional talent who was capable of single-handedly winning games down the stretch.
“No one is going to go into the phone booth and come out as Superman — or Josh Young,” Phelps said.
Phelps believes the team has enough scoring to make up for Young’s absence, but worries the team may suffer through rough patches offensively due to the lack of experience.
“We have a lot of scoring, but not seasoned scoring,” he said. “There are not a lot of guys who have done it in college, or in the Missouri Valley Conference.”
The team boasts one of the most athletic freshman classes it has seen in years. Led by 2009-2010 Gatorade Illinois Boys Basketball Player of the Year Rayvonte Rice, Drake fans should be excited to see the explosiveness this group brings to the floor.
“[Rayvonte] squatted 500 pounds the first time he stepped up to the bar,” Phelps said. “Those guys [freshmen players] have responded well. They have demonstrated a certain level of toughness I’m really excited about.”
In addition to Rice, the Bulldogs welcome point guard Karl Madison and wingman Jeremy Jeffers. All three are expected to contribute right away, and Madison will compete for the starting point guard job, primarily with junior Frank Wiseler.
“Karl… he is amazing,” Wiseler said. “Amazing defender, amazing point guard. He is a very intelligent player.”
Phelps said Wiseler has the most experience running the show, and he started the last 14 games in 2010 at point guard. Wiseler has been sidelined by an injury, but his recovery is ahead of schedule, and he is expected to return for the season opener at the Knapp Center against Texas Southern on Nov. 13. Redshirt freshman David Smith and junior transfer Kurt Alexander are also expected to compete for the job.
“We have four guys that can play point guard,” Phelps said. “Each brings different things to the table; Frank has the most experience, Kurt brings scoring, Karl is a terrific defender and David brings size.
“It will be fun to see how this shapes out.”
Another newcomer to the Drake squad on game day will be 6-8 forward Jordan Clarke, who had to redshirt last year after transferring from Vermont. The team will depend on the sophomore to make up for the loss of Adam Templeton, who was second in the Valley in rebounding.
“Rebounding will be an emphasis for our team,” Phelps said. “Jordan needs to rebound in games like he did in practice last year.”
Sophomores Ben Simons, Aaron Hawley and Reece Uhlenhopp return after productive freshmen seasons. Simons, who also noticeably added muscle in the offseason, teamed up with VanDeest and other players from the Big Ten and MVC to play five games in Europe for the Global Sports Academy All-Stars. Smith was also a member of that recruiting class, but decided to redshirt after seeing limited action last year.
“I just look to contribute when I play,” Smith said. “The chemistry has been good. They (the freshmen players) feel very comfortable and fit right in.”
The team officially starts practice this Friday, and will open the season with an exhibition match at the Knapp Center against Wisconsin-Parkside on Nov. 6.
“I’m excited about our potential, and excited about competing,” Phelps said. “We’re going to take it one day at a time; maintain the approach we have right now, and things will fall together.”
Photo: File Photo