In advance of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament this weekend, three Bradley basketball players found themselves in the spotlight.
Sophomore forward Donte Thomas was named to the MVC All-Improved team, while freshmen guard Dwyane Lautier-Ogunleye and forward Luuk van Bree were named to the MVC All-Freshman team.
The awards, which were voted on by the 10 newspaper basketball beat writers of Valley schools, were announced at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday and 10 a.m. this morning.
However, Thomas, who improved his points and rebounding average this season by 6.4 points per game and 3.9 rebounds per game, respecively, said the award doesn’t compare to winning games.
“It was a great feeling,” Thomas said. “In my opinion, it means something, but I’d rather get wins for my team, and that’s bigger than anything.”
Head coach Brian Wardle said Thomas’ development has been nearly a year in the making.
“We sat down in the first week I got the job, and I said, ‘How good do you want to be? Here’s how I coach: I’ll push you, I’m going to get the most out of you, and get you better,’” Wardle said. “He has been improved not only on the floor but off the floor in so many ways, and he’s just got to keep grinding away like he’s doing.”
Thomas said one of the reasons for his development was his ability to deal with hardships.
“There’s going to be adversity everywhere,” Thomas said. “You just have to learn to play through it.”
While Thomas was honored as one of the most improved, Lautier-Ogunleye and van Bree took two out of the five spots on the All-Freshman team.
“Dwayne and Luuk are two of our hardest workers,” Wardle said. “They put [in] a lot of time off the floor trying to improve and get better.”
While Wardle praised the two MVC All-Freshmen, he went on to spread the love to fellow freshmen guards Antoine Pittman and Ronnie Suggs.
“I love when hard work pays off, but obviosuly Ronnie and [Pittman] have had good years too,” Wardle said. “I think [Pittman is], in my opinion, one of the best defenders in the league as a freshman.”
Following the week of awards, the Braves are headed to St. Louis today in order to settle in for the MVC tournament this weekend.
Bradley, the Valley’s ninth seed, will take on eighth-seeded Loyola-Chicago in the tournament’s first game Thursday.
“It’s season number three,” Wardle said. “It’s March — March Madness — what college basketball is all about. I’m just excited for this young team to get that experience of playing in the conference tournament.”
In preparation for the tournament, Wardle said his gameplan will focus on defense and rebounding, which is what he preached his first day on the job.
With this, the third game between Bradley and Loyola in the 2015-2016 season, the team is more familiar with the Ramblers, their tendencies and how to plan for the defending College Basketball Invitational champions.
“Scouting [competition] is a four to eight point advantage,” Wardle said. “It’s not going to win you the game, but it’s going to put you in a better position to win the game.”
Wardle, a veteran of Horizon League Tournaments and National Invitational Tournaments, is no stranger to coaching in tournaments.
“Whoever executes their gameplan better [wins],” Wardle said. “It’s the third time we’ve played each other, there’s little things each team is going to try to do to take away something from the other team.”
As the Braves enter the tournament at their youngest in program history, nerves might be a concern. However, Thomas thinks the opposite.
“I think they’re ready for war,” Thomas said.