Oh, how sweet it still is

Bradley players react after being selected into the 2006 NCAA Tournament. Photo via bradleybraves.com.
Bradley players react after being selected into the 2006 NCAA Tournament. Photo via bradleybraves.com.
Bradley players react after being selected into the 2006 NCAA Tournament. Photo via bradleybraves.com.

They all remember it in their own ways.

As analysts and sports networks remember each game and busted bracket, a decade later the 2005-2006 Bradley men’s basketball team is immortalized in March Madness lore.

However, in the eyes of the players, the run to the Sweet Sixteen has become something else entirely.

“I’d probably say [it was] everlasting,” Tony Bennett, shooting guard for the 2005-2006 Braves, said.

“It was a movie,” point guard Daniel Ruffin said.

“[It was] crazy,” senior guard J.J. Tauai said.

Being the last Bradley basketball team to make the NCAA tournament, the 05-06 Braves went from almost-disaster to the top of the college basketball world.

“In everyday walks of life, there’s something that reminds you of it,” Bennett said. “I learned so much from it and built so much off of that one season.”

However, Ruffin’s comparison to a theatrical film was a more accurate metaphor than some may believe.

“Nothing went actually as planned,” Ruffin said. “Sometimes in a movie, there’s a buildup to certain things where you’re not sure it’s actually going. At the end of the movie, there was a great finish.”

As with all classic movies, there’s a plethora of factors that go into a film in order for it to reach new heights. They need convincing actors, an inspiring director and a thrilling plot.

The stars of the show weren’t well-known Oscar winners or, in this case, Naismith trophy candidates, but they certainly were in a league of their own.

“Tony Bennett, Will Franklin, Marcellus Sommerville, Zack Andrews and Patrick O’Bryant,” Ruffin said, recounting the stars of the team. “Those four guys were a big reason why [we won].”

Bennett was third in scoring on the team, averaging 10.6 points per game, Ruffin accumulated 171 total assists that year, and Tauai was one of the captains that year. The supporting cast wasn’t too shabby, either.

“Will Franklin came off the bench as my back up, and there was no let down,” Ruffin said. “I felt like he brought the team up to a better level.”

Although it was a joint effort, Tauai said the Braves did have their own star player: Marcellus Sommerville.

“He was the glue,” Tauai said. “We often called him dad.”

The characters were in place, but the plot twist almost happened before the Braves got to the biggest stage in college basketball.

Just as conference play started, the Braves were brandishing an impressive 7-2 record. But, two weeks into conference play, they found themselves at a sobering 8-6 overall record and a 2-4 conference record.

“One of those games was [a loss] to Wichita State by at least 20 plus points at home,” Ruffin said. “At that point of the season, our coach [Jim Les] wasn’t sure where we were at. After that game, he told everybody in the locker room that no one has a starting position.”

Yet, Bennett, one of the team’s seniors, knew something Ruffin, a sophomore, didn’t.

“We heard rumors about Coach Les probably getting fired,” Bennett said.

Bennett said once he and the senior class were aware of these rumors, true or not, something had to be done.

“We spoke to the rest of the guys,” he said. “If [Les was] going to get fired, he’s not going to get fired on our hands … To this day, I don’t know if [Les] even knows about that.”

The senior meeting sparked a new-found focus in the senior class, which then trickled down to the rest of the squad.

“Everyone had to earn everything from this point,” Ruffin said. “That got everybody refocused, and we started going hard in practice again.”

Following the Wichita State loss in mid-January, the Braves won 12 of their final 16 games and propelled themselves into the Missouri Valley Conference tournament title game against Southern Illinois.

The Salukis outlasted the Braves and took home the MVC crown, leaving Bradley players and fans alone in suspense wondering: Would they make the NCAA Tournamnent or not?

“That Sunday, we all met up at the student center and we watched [selection Sunday] with a few fans and family members,” Ruffin said. “We were getting word that we’d have the opportunity to get in if this team loses or if this team wins.”

The nerves were also getting to the seniors, whose usual jovial mood was soured by the tensions of the Selection Show.

“Patrick O’Bryant or somebody got a piece of tissue and stuck it in my ear,” Bennett said. “We played that way, but at this point in time, we were locked in. I turned around and kind of snapped at him. Me and Marcellus said, ‘Right now isn’t the time to play.’”

Eventually their nerves evaportaed into thin air, as the TV flashed the name “Bradley Braves.” Bradley would be in the Oakland regional, playing in Auburn Hills, Michigan, against college basketball juggernaut Kansas Jayhawks.

However, Les didn’t give the team time to shy away from the fourth-seeeded Jayhawks.

“[Coach Les] didn’t give us a chance at all to have any doubt,” Bennett said. “I wouldn’t say he was confident; he was cocky.”

That cockiness paid off in the form of a 77-73 upset over Kansas, one of the biggest upsets in school history.

How did they do it?

Ruffin said there was one piece of kryptonite up Bradley’s sleeve.

“They were bigger than us in every position,” Ruffin said. “The only thing we noticed, the one thing they weren’t necessarily used to was getting pressured.”

If Kansas wasn’t daunting enough, a date with the fifth-seeded Pittsburgh Panthers loomed. But, both schools made the crucial mistake of not taking the Braves seriously.

“Kansas kind of looked over us as Pittsburgh was walking off the court,” Ruffin said. “Pittsburgh was like, ‘Wait ‘til Sunday, we’re going to beat you guys,’ talking to Kansas. They both were looking over us.”

Led by O’Bryant, Bradley suffocated Pitt’s post game, which was anchored by future NBA center Aaron Gray and was considered their biggest strength.

Bennett said he also got into it with a Pitt guard who was from New York, but Bennett got the last laugh as Peoria’s Cinderella sent Pitt packing 72-66.

“[The guard from New York] elbowed or punched me in the back of the head at one point and got away with it,” Bennett said. “You know how the rivalry is between Chicago and New York, so for me to stand up to a New York guy … made it a little more sweeter for me.”

The Braves were headed to the Sweet Sixteen, and the cockiness Les instilled in the team was on display after that weekend

“After Kansas, it was like, ‘Oh, man, no body can beat us,’” Bennett said. “For myself, I was on my way to a national championship. I just knew it.”

Bennett’s dreams of a championship lived vibrantly, but were put to an ubrupt end against top-seeded Memphis in the Sweet Sixteen.

“We played them to the best of our ability,” Ruffin said. “After a while, their athleticism, their quickness, their height, their strength just took its toll.”

The game also left an invisible scar on Bennett’s basketball life.

“That’s the game that haunts me to this day,” Bennett said. “I feel like I could’ve given more energy. That game is the reason alone I don’t tune into college basketball.”

Even as Bradley’s Cinderella season ended at the hands of a better team, coming back to Peoria, the team was surprised at how endearing the fans were.

“I remember coming back from the tournament and getting off the plane, [the fans] filled up the whole airport,” Bennett said. “Like, you all know we just lost, right?”

As excited as the fans were to be a part of the Braves’ tournament run, going to the Sweet Sixteen had a more personal meaning to Rudffin and Bennett that still resonates with them a decade later.

“For me, that was like winning the national championship because what we did for the city of Peoria and Bradley alone,” Bennett said.

Bennett still holds on to his sense of accomplishment as he still plays professionally in the National Basketball Leage of Canada, but to Ruffin, he was able to be an emissary for his hometown.

“I was able to represent Peoria, Illinois, on a national level,” Ruffin said. “I wouldn’t change any of that for the world.”

Times have changed since that Sweet Sixteen team energized Bradley and Peoria.

Jim Les was fired from Bradley after the 2010-2011 season, the Braves haven’t won 20 or more games since the 2008-2009 season and the NCAA tournament seems like a distant dream.

“I think that’s when the program went the opposite way, when [Les] was let go,” Bennett said.

However, Ruffin, who coaches semi-pro basketball in Champaign, says he sees the same story developing with the current Bradley basketball team, who finished 5-27 in the 2015-2016 season.

“My first year, we were under .500 with a bunch of young guys that played hard,” Ruffin said. “They can have the same success, but I definitely see some similarites in these guys.”

As seasons pass and players come and go, the 2005-2006 season has turned into an instant classic and one of the best Cinderella stories in the sports world.

Tauai, who’s now a cop in Springfield, Missouri, said its because of the team’s historic first round win.

“Kansas was picked to go to the final four that year,” Tauai said. “Anytime you beat Kansas [it’s a big deal].”

However, Bennett’s time at Bradley is immortalized in the time he spent on the Hilltop, and in the facilities.

“The two years I spent at Bradley were the best two years of my life to this day,” Bennett said. “The locker room has a huge picture of me, sitting back there after the Pittsburgh win … It feels good going back knowing that I played a part along with my teammates.”