After finishing 3-15 in conference for two consecutive seasons, the Bradley mens basketball team made a noticeable talent jump last year. That jump not only showed in the teams overall level of play, but appeared in their record as well. The Braves won eight additional games and improved to 7-11 in conference, finishing in a tie for sixth in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Once again among the youngest teams in the MVC, the Braves made up for their inexperience with toughness, wearing out opponents with their depth and grinding out wins. Nonetheless, that grit could not make up for the fire power that the teams at the top of the conference had such as Illinois State and Wichita State. This led to the Shockers ending the Braves season in the second round of the conference tournament.
With Wichita State now a part of the American Athletic Conference, the MVC title is up for grabs. According to Wardle, the Braves will be looking to improve their record from last season and rise in the conference standings.
Our vision is to make another jump upwards in wins and also in the league, Wardle said. I think how we compete in the Missouri Valley is very important.
The Braves were picked to finish seventh in the MVC preseason poll; something that Wardle said motivated his players.
I think the league has a lot of parity and I think its going to be open to win by a lot of programs, Wardle said. Preseason rankings dont mean anything, but if it can motivate your group, and piss your group off like mine is right now beautiful, lets talk about them every day.
Junior guard Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye is one of the players who believes the team can out-perform its preseason ranking.
Were a talented team, and weve been working hard all offseason, Lautier-Ogunleye said. Were 14 guys deep. Anyone can start at any time you just have to be ready when your number is called. I think were ready for the season to start and looking forward to playing some other teams.
According to Wardle, the team continued to make strides in other areas of its game during the offseason, as well.
Im very proud of our actions this offseason and what weve done, not only when were together as a team but what theyve done on their own, Wardle said. So Im excited for this sophomore group, but our two seniors JoJo McGlaston and Donte Thomas; wed love to send them off with the program in a much better place than when they came in.
The one area where the Braves continued to struggle was ball handling. Bradley had the worst turnover margin in the MVC. In an exhibition match against an up-tempo Robert Morris University last Wednesday, the Braves finished with 15 turnovers.
The huddles were good, the talk was good, the point guards were looking for me, but the execution still has to get better and that is common for this time of year, Wardle said. It was a good experience because when you play a team thats going to shoot 45 [three pointers] the game can get a little helter skelter, and you have to take care of the ball.
While the team will still feature underclassmen in many prominent roles, as Wardle mentioned, they will have veterans to lean on such as Thomas and McGlaston. Wardle said the experience of the players who have been around the program helps in their preparation for the start of the season.
As a coach and as a teacher, you have to always teach fundamentals and reemphasize the little things, Wardle said. We have to be committed more to the details. So every year, you have to re-teach it, but theres no doubt the veterans pick things up a lot quicker.
The Braves already have two exhibition game victories under their belt, and they hope to keep up their hot start as they take on Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis next Saturday at 1 p.m. in Carver Arena.