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Analysis: Examining Bradley men’s basketball’s non-conference schedule

Bradley head coach Brian Wardle. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics.

Touted as one of the best teams in the Missouri Valley Conference this year, the Bradley men’s basketball team has put together a strong non-conference schedule. The challenging slate should allow the team to prepare for a larger and more competitive conference and an opportunity to compete for an NCAA tournament bid this year.

The Braves will face at least two Power Five opponents and multiple strong mid-major programs in one of their strongest non-conference slates in recent seasons. With the additions of Murray State, Belmont and Illinois-Chicago to the MVC, the conference schedule rises to 20 games. That leaves less room for non-conference bouts, as the Braves will play 11 games outside of the MVC rather than the average number of 13 contests.

Below, we examine each team on the non-conference schedule.

Bradley’s Koch Bar shoots a layup against Wisconsin-Parkside in 2018. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics.

Nov. 7: vs Wisconsin-Parkside (DII) // ‘21-22: 14-14

After an exhibition match on Nov. 2 against Illinois Wesleyan, the Braves will open the season at Carver Arena versus familiar foe Wisconsin-Parkside. The Braves last played the Rangers in 2018 and defeated them 74-58. This matchup should be a good early season tune-up for eighth year head coach Brian Wardle and the Braves before their first road test.

Nov. 11: at Utah State // ‘21-22: 18-16 (KenPom: 60, NET: 65)

The Braves will make their way to Logan, Utah, for the first road matchup of the season. The Aggies made the NIT tournament last year, bowing out in the first round to Oregon, but lost their top two scorers from a season ago. Nevertheless, Utah State will compete in a stacked Mountain West that produced four NCAA tournament teams last year, providing an early test for the Braves.

Nov. 15: vs Eastern Michigan // ‘21-22: 10-21 (KenPom: 316, NET: 306)

On paper, the next matchup for the Braves doesn’t look too difficult as Eastern Michigan has not been in the national spotlight for quite some time. However, Carver Arena will welcome a new-look Eagles team that has the potential to have a breakout year, with or without former top-five recruit Emoni Bates.

Bates was a former top recruit out of high school, and was compared to Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson as a 15-year old by Sports Illustrated. He spent his freshman year with the Memphis Tigers but fell short of expectations and transferred to Eastern Michigan in his hometown of Ypsilanti, Michigan. Recently, Bates was arrested after being pulled over with a firearm in the vehicle he was driving, leaving his status for the upcoming season unknown. Bradley will likely be favored, but guard Noah Farrakhan (16.6 ppg in 2021-22) and the Eagles will be on the lookout to steal a game on the road nonetheless.

Nov. 19: vs Southeast Missouri State // ‘21-22: 14-18 (KenPom: 244, NET: 250)

Closing out the two-game homestand is Southeast Missouri State. The Redhawks desperately struggled with rebounds and shot selection last year but found a way to finish fourth in the Ohio Valley Conference. This should serve as a nice matchup before the Braves jump on a plane for their trip to Cancun, Mexico.

The Redhawks return guard Phillip Russell (13.4 ppg) and forward Chris Harris (9.4 ppg) from a team that ranked 14th in the country last year in adjusted tempo, per KenPom. The Braves last faced SEMO in 2018, taking home a 68-57 victory.

Cancun Challenge: Nov. 22-23:

vs Auburn // ‘21-22: 28-6 (KenPom: 12, NET: 13)

vs Liberty // ‘21-22: 22-11 (KenPom: 124, NET: 118) OR

Northwestern // ‘21-22: 15-16 (KenPom: 87, NET: 91)

The last time Wardle and the Braves were in Cancun, they returned to Peoria with a first-place trophy in 2018. This time around, they’ll likely be facing a top-25 team in the first round.

Head coach Bruce Pearl and the Auburn Tigers finished their regular season as the eighth-ranked team in the country, leaving the Braves with an exceptionally difficult matchup to kick off their trip. Despite losing Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith to the NBA, the Tigers return a highly effective duo of guards that will test the Braves’ backcourt in K.D. Johnson (12.3 ppg) and Wendell Green Jr. (12.0 ppg).

The Braves will face the Liberty Flames or the Northwestern Wildcats with either the championship or a third-place finish on the line. The Flames are always a tough out, having won the ASUN Conference three of the last four years and owning a record over .500 in each year since 2014.

The Wildcats have had to fight for respect in the always-competitive Big Ten. The last time the Braves faced off with the Wildcats was back in 2019, in which Northwestern drubbed the Braves 78-51. The ‘Cats will be led by a trio of seniors that combined for over 30 points per game last year in Robbie Beran, Chase Audige and Boo Buie.

Nov. 26: vs Merrimack // ‘21-22: 14-16 (KenPom: 299, NET: 291)

Carver Arena will welcome the Braves back from Mexico with the first of two Northeast Conference foes in the Merrimack Warriors. Head coach Joe Gallo’s squad finished fourth in the NEC last year and won the conference in their first season in Division I in 2020. That same year, Merrimack was picked to finish last in the conference in the preseason.

The Braves should expect a victory here, but they’ll have to keep an eye on senior forward Jordan Miner, who averaged 14.3 points per game and 8.0 rebounds per game in the 2021-22 season.

Dec. 6: at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville // ‘21-22: 11-21 (KenPom: 298, NET: 292)

Connor Hickman drives to the basket against SIUe Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics.

In the return trip of a home-and-home with the Cougars, Bradley will make their way to Edwardsville, Illinois. Last year, when these two teams met in Peoria, Bradley walked away victorious in a much-needed 80-55 win thanks to shooting 50 percent from the field. Terry Roberts scored 17 points in the win and the Braves got 13 more from Jayson Kent off the bench.

After the trip south of Peoria, the Braves will take a short hiatus to play two conference games. The MVC experimented with a standalone conference game last year and will continue to do so with the increased number of conference games. Bradley will match up with Northern Iowa at home on Nov. 30 before traveling to take on the Missouri State Bears on Dec. 3.

Dec. 17: at Arkansas // ‘21-22: 28-9 (KenPom: 18, NET: 21)

When the Braves wrap up the abbreviated start to conference season, they’ll be awarded with a drive to Arkansas to face off with the Razorbacks. The game is technically a neutral site contest and will be played at the 18,000-seat Simmons Bank Arena in nearby North Little Rock. The Braves’ game against Arkansas marks the first time since the 1949-50 season where they will play two SEC opponents in the same season. 

If last season is any indication, the contest may very well be another top-25 game for the Braves. The fourth-seeded ‘Hogs were eliminated in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament to Duke last year and should expect to be a heavyweight opponent for the Braves. Arkansas has lost the services of JD Notae and Stanley Umude but head coach Eric Musselman has brought in former AAC Sixth Man of the Year Ricky Council IV and one of the nation’s top shot-blockers last year in Makhel Mitchell. Arkansas’ strength looks to be in the paint, meaning that Ja’Shon Henry, Rienk Mast and Malevy Leons need to be at their best against the Razorbacks.

Dec. 19: vs Stonehill // ‘21-22: 15-12 (First year in Division I)

The second NEC opponent on the schedule, the Skyhawks will make the trip from Easton, Mass., to Carver Arena for a battle with the Braves. First-year Division I teams are always wild cards for sneaky success (see Merrimack above), so the Braves will be on high alert for what is expected to be an easier matchup on paper in late December.

Dec. 22: vs Akron // ‘21-22: 24-10 (KenPom: 126, NET: 126)

The defending Mid-American Conference champions, Akron is poised to present a tough challenge to end Bradley’s non-conference schedule. The Zips were a 13-seed in the NCAA Tournament last spring and nearly upset Pac-12 powerhouse UCLA before ultimately falling 57-53. However, they did lose leading scorer Ali Ali to the transfer portal, leaving this one as a toss-up before the Braves dive into conference play.

Chicago native Xavier Castaneda looks to lead the team after posting 13.6 points per game and earning All-MAC Honorable Mention honors last season. In the paint, the Zips retain the services of Enrique Trimble, who averaged a double-double and had the best field goal percentage (66.5) in the entire nation last year. The junior was a second team all-conference pick last year and the MAC Defensive Player of the Year.

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