The 2011-12 Drake men’s basketball season was filled with its ups and downs. One of the bright spots on the season was junior Ben Simons, who is my pick for The Times-Delphic Drake Athlete of the Year.
During the campaign, the Bulldogs were able to notch victories over both Iowa State and Wichita State, but they also suffered disappointing road losses to Indiana State and Illinois State which cost them a higher seed in the State Farm Missouri Valley Conference Championship. Drake ended up in a five-way tie for third place in the MVC, but it lost all tiebreakers and ended up as the No. 7-seed going into the MVC tournament. The Bulldogs were able to get past 10th-seeded Bradley in the first round but eventually fell to the No. 2 seed Creighton Bluejays in the quarterfinals.
The Bulldogs built a stable base for next season, but the losses of sophomore Rayvonte Rice (Rice is expected to transfer), senior Kurt Alexander, redshirt senior Kraidon Woods and redshirt sophomore David Smith (who is transferring as well), will hurt the team’s chances next season.
However, the small forward Simons averaged 16.4 points a game this season. On Nov. 15, the Bulldogs welcomed the Cyclones to the Knapp Center. Iowa State, which finished third in the Big 12, defeated defending champion UConn in the NCAA tournament’s first round, but it was unable to get past Drake in this early-season matchup.
Simons had a huge impact on the game, tying his then career high in points and leading all other scorers with 24 points. Simons’ performance in this game gave Drake fans a good preview of what was to come from the 6-foot-8-inch junior in the rest of the season. On Drake’s biggest stage of the year, against the then No.14 Bluejays, Simons helped Drake’s efforts with 18 points, but ultimately the team fell just shy, losing 77-69. The following Saturday, Drake took its shot at another top-25 team, the Wichita State Shockers, and this time the Bulldogs prevailed.
The game took three overtimes, but Simons led the Bulldogs to a 93-86 victory with a new career-high of 29 points. Simons is the type of player who always plays well, but when the team needs him to stepup against stiffer competition, he is generally able to elevate his game.
Against Bradley in the first round of the MVC tournament, Simons led the way with 16 points.
The very next day, Simons finished below his season average in the team’s MVC tournament loss to Creighton, only putting up 11 points. His slightly below-average numbers show how important he is for Drake to defeat a quality opponent. If Simons wasn’t able to play lightsout like he did against the Cyclones and Shockers, Drake could not take down elite competition.
Drake was invited to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament and played North Dakota at home in the first round. The Bulldogs squeaked by the Fighting Sioux 70-64, and Simons had the gamehigh with 24 points. In its second round game, Drake was unable to move past Rice University, but Simons still helped the efforts with 21 points, with 19 coming in the second half.
Next season Drake will have a different look to its roster, but we’ll always have a shot to succeed in the MVC with Simons on our side.