After three straight 20-win seasons, second place CBI finish could be stepping stone for program
Last season, Bradley reached the finals of the inaugural College Basketball Invitational.
The postseason has become a trend for the Braves, reaching three consecutive post-season tournaments on their way to compiling seven post-season wins.
Beginning its seventh season under coach Jim Les, Bradley has gone 65-41 over the past three seasons, recording more than 20 wins each year.
“Hopefully we’re getting used to it and it’s becoming a habit that we will have played late into March,” Les said.
Although Les and the Braves have to deal with the loss of their graduated seniors, guards Jeremy Crouch and Daniel Ruffin and center Matt Salley, the 2008-09 Braves should be re-vamped and ready to go this season.
Bradley was picked to finish fifth in the annual Missouri Valley Conference Preseason Poll.
While the Braves lost their top two leading scorers in Crouch and Ruffin, they return the next three.
“I really like this group,” Les said. “I think they’ve worked extremely hard. They’ve had a great chemistry and camaraderie going back to this summer.”
Senior Theron Wilson, junior Andrew Warren and sophomore Sam Maniscalco all return for the 2008-09 season.
Wilson, one of Bradley’s four seniors, returns to the Hilltop after transferring in last season. He’s the team’s top returning rebounder and finished second in the MVC in points, rebounds and steals among Valley newcomers last season.
“He just plays hard,” Les said. “He steps on the floor and he competes and wants to win.”
The 6-foot-5 forward showed his versatility last season knocking down 28 3-pointers, shooting .412 from behind the arc.
Wilson was named to the MVC All-Newcomer Team last year and he will look to wrap up more awards at the end of this season.
With last season’s top scorers gone, Wilson will now have to score against other team’s top defenders.
Wilson said he has high expectations for this year’s team.
“Everybody is hungry to get out there and reach for the goal, as far as going to the NCAA and even going beyond the Sweet 16,” Wilson said.
Warren, who was named to the MVC Most-Improved Team last season, is the Braves’ top returning scorer.
He made great strides in his sophomore season and he will be looked upon to make up for the offense production lost from the graduated guards.
Warren led the team with 67 3-pointers and he was the only MVC player to knock down more than 65 shots from beyond the arc and make 100 free throws.
Wilson and Warren combined to make 68 starts last season and both were honorable mentions on the MVC Preseason Team.
The other two returning players who started games last season were Maniscalco and senior Sam Singh.
Maniscalco hit 55 3-pointers last season, setting a new Bradley record on his way to being named the MVC All-Freshman and All-Newcomer Teams.
Singh returns to the Hilltop for his fifth season, marking the fourth consecutive year Bradley will have a fifth-year senior on the team.
The final scholarship senior is center David Collins.
The 7-footer came on strong in the CBI last season, showing potential for the upcoming season. He worked hard during the off-season, practicing with the Canadian national team.
“Last year was a year for me with a lot of ups and downs,” Collins said. “I learned from that, and now I know what to expect coming into this year.”
Former walk-on Brain Lavin rounds out this year’s senior class.
The two remaining scholarship players from last year’s squad are sophomore Will Egolf and freshman Anthony Thompson.
Egolf played sparingly throughout the season, mainly in non-conference games. Les said Thompson, who red-shirted last season, gained more than 40 pounds in the off-season.
Thompson, along with his teammates, said he thinks they have a solid team this year.
“I think this is an NCAA Sweet 16 caliber team, maybe even farther,” Thompson said.
Former walk-on junior Ryan Phillips also returns this season.
The Braves welcome six new players to the Hilltop this year.
“Everybody brings something different to the table that is going to help us be successful this year,” Warren said.
Of the new players, four are freshman and two transferred in.
Junior guards Dodie Dunson and Chris Roberts both left their former schools to play Div. I basketball at Bradley.
Dunson was a McDonald’s All-American nominee his senior year of high school and he started his collegiate career at Iowa State. After averaging more than five points his freshman year, Dunson transferred to Vincennes University where he led his team to the NJCAA District 3 Tournament championship.
Dunson has two years of eligibility remaining.
Roberts joins the Braves after averaging 12 ppg last season at Navarro Junior College.
The freshmen, Taylor Brown, Eddren McCain, Darian Norris and James Robertson, fill out the rest of the Braves’ roster.
Taylor, whose father played in the NBA, chose to attend junior college after high school but he was injured before the season. The forward red-shirted for the year and trained at home with his dad.
Taylor said he has high expectations for this team.
“Just like Lebron [James] said the U.S. is going to win the gold, we’re going to win the MVC and we should go pretty deep in the tournament,” he said.
Guards McCain and Norris both come to the Hilltop out of high school.
McCain led his team to four straight Louisiana Class C state titles, while Norris averaged over 18 ppg at his high school in Nevada.
Robertson joined the Braves as a walk-on after trying out in the fall.
Warren said if the new players keep their heads up, they will be able to find success.
“They have to realize that the hard work they’re putting in everyday might not show in one or two games, but in the end … we are going to need them down the line,” he said.
Les said he has been happy with the way the new players have been performing.
“The new guys have done a nice job of catching on and playing with really good intensity,” Les said. “There isn’t one of the new guys I can recall getting after for not playing hard or not giving it to me on a given day.”
While starters are yet to be announced, Wilson, Maniscalco, Dunson, Roberts and Collins started Monday’s exhibition game.
Warren’s health is a concern because of a foot injury suffered earlier this year.
The Braves will begin the season Nov. 14 at Carver Arena when they square off against University of Illinois at Chicago.
Bradley will face two opponents from major conferences this year, traveling to Gainesville, Fla., to take on University of Florida Nov. 16, and to East Lansing, Mich., to face Michigan State Dec. 7.