Entering his fifth year as the head coach of the men’s basketball program, it’s now or never for Mark Phelps. With five new freshmen and three experienced transfers, Phelps arguably has the best team he’s ever had at Drake and this might be the year the Bulldogs finally breakthrough in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“I think the coming together of the eight new guys with the five returning players has gone extremely well, certainly helped by the ability to work with those guys during the summertime,” Phelps said in the team’s Media Day earlier this month. “I see a cohesive group. I see a team that’s deeper than we’ve had in a while, a better passing team, a better scoring team. All those things are calls for excitement.”
The Bulldogs welcome fifth-year senior Chris Hines, a transfer from Utah, and juniors Richard Carter and Gary Ricks Jr. Carter transferred from Cloud Country (Kansas) Community College and Ricks Jr. arrives after playing at Indian Hills Community College.
Even though they are considered “newcomers,” the trio of transfers have plenty of experience and will join senior Ben Simons and redshirt senior Jordan Clarke as the leaders of this team.
Simons averaged 16. 4 points per game on 42.5 percent from three-point range for the Bulldogs last season.
“We do have a lot of newcomers, but we also have several players that have started, with a lot of starting experience, with a lot of game experience,” Simons said. “The newcomers this year have really been good. Coming in being coachable and really just coming in and just wanting to learn and get better every day.”
The additions of Carter and Ricks Jr. will help the Bulldogs address one of the biggest issues they faced last season — getting into the lane and creating plays off-the-dribble.
“I think Rich (Carter) might be one of the quickest guys, probably in the conference. If he uses that, he can be really effective,” Hines said.
Additionally the Bulldogs will try to incorporate more “movement” on offense.
“I think from last year, I think there was a lot less movement on offense. I think this year the ball will be moving a lot more, a lot more pick-and-rolls and I think our shooting is a lot better than last year’s team,” Hines said.
The Bulldogs also welcome a strong freshman class that with Joey King, Kori Babineaux, Micah Mason, Robert Puleikis and Daddy Ugbede.
The Bulldogs also welcome back redshirt junior Seth VanDeest, who missed all of last season after undergoing shoulder surgery in the offseason.
“You reintroduce Seth VanDeest, a bigger, better stronger Seth VanDeest. He’s a guy that we didn’t have the luxury of throwing the ball into the post last year. We’re really trusting him to make the right play,” Phelps said.
With a strong core of returning players as well, the Bulldogs have a chance to crack the Valley’s top three.
At the top, Creighton and Wichita State remain steady. The Bluejays recently were named No.16 in the Associated Press poll. Drake will compete with Illinois State, Northern Iowa, Evansville and Indiana State for the top positions in the MVC.
The pieces are there for the Bulldogs to make a run at the MVC elite this year if their trio of transfers pan out.