Photo: Connor McCourtney
The Drake Bulldogs were not supposed to lose against the Bradley Braves last Thursday. They were the seventh seed playing against the worst team in the conference (record-wise, anyhow). Yes, Bradley had been playing a lot better and they had just pounded Drake a week earlier, but there were no excuses for what happened last Thursday night.
This was a game that Drake should have won. It did not have anything to do with our youth, or the referees or the Braves playing out of this world. Bradley was better. They played harder, they hit shots and they got in the lane as much as they wanted. They overwhelmed Drake. It was a defining moment in the future of a basketball program that has lost its course ever since the departure of head coach Keno Davis. Make no mistake, Drake has consistently worsened its winning totals each of the last three years (from 28 wins to 17 to 14 and now to 13). It’s hard to believe this program is moving in the right direction.
Yes, Drake beat Northern Iowa and Creighton at home. The Bulldogs played their hearts out in those games. Can they do that on a regular basis? I simply do not know. The biggest problems plaguing Drake, from my point of view, is not hustle or effort. I do believe this team plays hard for head coach Mark Phelps. But it lacks size, it lacks rebounding and it lacks interior scoring. It lacks guards that can get in the lane and create opportunities to open up 3-point attempts. This is what Drake struggles to do on a consistent basis. We can’t keep throwing around the “youth” excuse much longer. Most of these guys are going to be juniors and seniors next year.
Look, Drake has had stellar recruiting classes each of the last two years and I will honestly come out and say that they have improved substantially. But improvement only takes you so far. If you don’t put it in the win column, then it doesn’t mean anything. That’s the cold reality of sports. As former NFL coach Bill Parcells said, “You are what your record says you are.” And the Bulldogs are 44-53 overall in the last three seasons and 21-34 in conference play. Only Southern Illinois and Evansville have worse records than Drake in the last three years.
But let’s take a step back from how this season ended and try to look at what we should expect in the next couple of years. We are going to lose fifth-year senior Ryan Wedel. He was our best shooter and one of our most consistent performers. Other than that, we have our same guys; there’s only one recruit coming in this fall. There are some bright spots in this squad, but it’s up to Phelps and the players to live up to their potential.
We have freshman Rayvonte Rice, who one day will be good enough to win MVC Player of the Year. We don’t need to worry about his production. This guy competes on offense and on defense.
Sophomore Ben Simons continued to improve his offensive game and shot a terrific percentage this year. He needs to continue to be aggressive on offense and improve his defense and rebounding.
I hope sophomore Seth VanDeest does not struggle with injuries anymore and he can produce like he did his freshman season. We need his size and inside scoring. But either way, I’m intrigued to see how much junior transfer Kraidon Woods improves his game next year; he has filled in nicely for VanDeest.
Redshirt sophomore Jordan Clarke will be healthy and that will help him improve his offensive game. His elbow has not allowed him to finish or to step out and hit the mid-range jumper like he can. We’ll have junior Frank Wiseler back next year, who’s been out most of the season. He’s a true point guard who is an intelligent player. Junior transfer Kurt Alexander really started to show his offensive prowess late in the year, and we need his penetration and playmaking ability. And lastly, we need freshman Karl Madison to show next year that he’s as good as advertised.
There are a lot of good guys on this team and not just talent-wise. There are players who legitimately care about improving this program, and I respect that. I hope they can put that desire together with the talent they have, because I know this team is talented and I know we can be better. But if we do not start winning the games we should win, and we do not stop trying to blame our problems on youth or inexperience, then this program will not be able to move forward. I wish for nothing more than to see Phelps and his guys show that we can play ball at Drake.
Final Drake Stats
1. Rayvonte Rice, 13.8 points per game
2. Ryan Wedel, 10.9
3. Seth VanDeest, 8.8
1. Rice, 4.8 rebounds per game
2. Jordan Clarke, 4.7
3. VanDeest, 4.4
1. Wedel, 2.0 assists per game
2. Kurt Alexander, 1.7
3. Rice, 1.6
1. Rice, 1.4 steals per game
2. Clarke, 1.3
3. Aaron Hawley, 0.6
(Compiled by Matt Moran)