Photo: Connor McCourtney
I don’t know what to expect when Drake squares-off against the Bradley Braves in the first round of the State Farm MVC Tournament tonight. I wish I could say that I knew the favored Bulldogs would easily take care of business over the 10th seed of the Missouri Valley Conference. Bradley has had a pretty bad season mind you, but they have been a lot better as of late. You might want to ask Drake about that, who got pounded by 26 points over the weekend. But it was Bradley’s senior night right? And the Braves couldn’t possibly shoot 63 percent from the field for the second straight game. It was their best shooting performance in the last five years so what are the odds of them doing it two games in a row? No, Bradley will shoot the ball a lot worse, and the Bulldogs will not go 5-of-25 from 3-point range in consecutive games, because that killed Drake on the road once again. The Bulldogs have struggled to make threes on the road this year (other than that Southern Illinois game where they made 16 treys and, no, that is not a typo) which is an unusual trend this team is going to have to shake off if they want to make a deep run this year.
But who will actually win the game? Well, Bradley does have Andrew Warren, who finished fourth in the MVC Player of the Year voting and leads the conference in scoring. He dropped 33 points, 11 rebounds and five assists against the Bulldogs last Saturday. Yeah, he’s got game. But we have freshman Rayvonte Rice, and well, he might not be player-of-theyear material yet, but I would bet good money he gets his hands on that accolade before his time at Drake is up. There’s no secret to what Drake has to do to beat Bradley (or anyone in this conference). When the Bulldogs are able to get their dribble-drive game going, establish their inside game and open-up their shooters, they can hang with anyone in the MVC. But more often than not, their lack of interior scoring and their inability to break down the defense stagnates the offense and forces the Bulldogs to take contested long-range shots without much ball movement.
But let’s not be negative, because, the fact is, Drake has improved substantially this year. Junior Kurt Alexander has gotten better at breaking down the defense. Redshirt junior Kraidon Woods dunks the ball (that’s all that has to be said) and has filled in for sophomore Seth VanDeest, who has struggled with injuries all year. Redshirt sophomore Jordan Clarke plays as hard as anyone in college basketball and sophomore Ben Simons continues to improve his all-around game. And when you add all that up, you are left with senior Ryan Wedel and Rice, who will make or break our MVC tournament because they are our best offensive players and because we need them at full strength to wreak havoc.
But not necessarily against Bradley. Against Bradley we just have to shoot the ball better, lock down on Warren and hope the Braves don’t shoot the lights out again. I think Drake will beat the Braves and will then have to take on Wichita State, who has beaten the Bulldogs by 19 at home and by 14 at the Knapp Center. They are too athletic and too big for us. Can we beat them? Of course. That’s the beauty of college basketball. But we would need our big men to really step up and we would need Wedel and Rice to go off for 20 points each. But it’s not impossible. You see, college teams have fairly similar levels of talent. This is not the NBA; that is why anyone can beat anyone. I would not be surprised if Drake beats Wichita State, but it would have to be one heck of a performance, because the Shockers rebound like mad men and play defense as hard as anyone. They don’t give up anything easily, so if you want to beat them, you have to beat them yourself, because they are not going to shoot themselves in the foot. And after that, well, Missouri State will probably make it to the final on the other side of the bracket. I don’t believe that nonsense that NFL analysts throw around that you can’t beat a good team three times in a row. That’s crap. In basketball, when you beat a team twice, you have their number. And boy did the Bears own the Shockers this year. So I think Missouri State wins the conference tournament and gets to go dancing for the MVC. But I’m confident Drake will do us proud, and if they can’t make a run, there’s always next year. We do have a bright future in store.
State Farm MVC Tournament Outlook
Best Case Scenario: Drake continues its late-season surge and its young players finally take the next step, as the Bulldogs’ talent is on display en route to a run to the MVC title game. Drake is favored against its first opponent and would have to play No. 2 Wichita State in the second round. Although the odds are against them, Drake would love nothing more than to get another shot at the Valley’s top team in the championship, Missouri State, whom the Bulldogs nearly upset twice this season. The third time’s a charm for Drake, as the Bulldogs make an improbable run to the NCAA tournament and bask in the national spotlight.
Worst Case Scenario: In the last game of the regular season last Saturday, Drake lost by 26 to the Valley’s last-place team, Bradley. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the Bulldogs will face the Braves in the first round tonight at 8:35 p.m. Since the first round matchup was already set before Drake took the floor last Saturday, I get the sense that the Bulldogs didn’t want to show Bradley too much before the tournament. Still, Drake’s worst nightmare would be for All-MVC first-teamer Andrew Warren to take over the game for the Braves, and send the Bulldogs home with an early first-round exit.