A season of high expectations for Bradley men’s basketball started with buzzer-beaters, near-upsets of ranked opponents and big victories. A few months later, it finished with a six-game conference losing streak, suspensions and a spot in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament Thursday play-in game.
It’s safe to say the Braves have seen their fair share of the good, bad and the ugly throughout the 2020-21 campaign.
Entering a first-round matchup with Southern Illinois tomorrow as the No. 8 seed in Arch Madness, it’s no secret that things are different for the two-time defending tournament champions.
“This is the first year, obviously, that we haven’t been playing our best in February,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “Last year we were really confident that we could go in and win it again. This year, we’re confident after this last win, that if we execute, do the right things in the game plan, we’ll be putting ourselves in position to win.”
After finishing the MVC schedule with a 6-12 record and 12-15 mark overall, here’s what to watch for from the Braves as they work to defend St. Louis supremacy this weekend.
Wrists, ankles and illness, oh my!
Entering Saturday night’s regular season finale with Drake, Bradley was already shorthanded due to the suspensions of seniors Elijah Childs and Danya Kingsby and junior Terry Nolan Jr. (who have missed every game since Feb. 13).
The situation went from bad to worse just before tip-off, when junior guard Kevin McAdoo was scratched due to a wrist injury and sophomore guard Ville Tahvanainen was forced out of the lineup due to a non-COVID-19 illness.
Bradley then went from seven scholarship players available to just six when junior forward Ja’Shon Henry turned awkwardly and injured his lower ankle, collapsing to the ground in pain.
While the Braves came out with a hard-fought, confidence-boosting victory over Drake, the battle scars still remain.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Wardle said that Tahvanainen and McAdoo would not practice, but would be “probable” to play.
Henry, on the other hand, is now in a walking boot and likely will not play.
“There would have to be some kind of miracle if he does play,” Wardle said.
Assuming he doesn’t play, the Braves will miss one of their biggest offensive motors, as Henry is the team’s top scorer among non-suspended players, averaging 10.9 points per game. The Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native has been especially critical lately, posting 15 and 17 point performances in the two full games he’s played since being cleared from his own suspension.
Laser Lance and the Dogs
One of the few things that remains the same between this season and last is Bradley’s first opponent in the tournament: Southern Illinois.
As the No. 9 seed, head coach Bryan Mullins and the Salukis have had a similarly frustrating season, finishing with a conference record of 5-13 after an exciting non-conference run in which they beat Murray State and Butler.
Much of the Dawgs’ frustrations can be blamed on the fact that 2020 MVC Freshman and Newcomer of the year Marcus Domask has been injured for all but four MVC matchups. Mullins confirmed Tuesday that the star sophomore will not play over the weekend.
This turns Bradley’s attention to another star: sophomore guard Lance Jones. In Domask’s absence, Jones led the team with 14.7 PPG, 2.5 assists per game and a tough-to-stop 41 percent shooting mark from beyond the arc.
“Obviously, we’ve got to stop Lance Jones,” Tahvanainen said of his counterpart. “We’ve just got to make him work on the court, take tough shots and keep him out of the game as much as possible, because I feel like he’s the heart and soul of the team.”
The Braves and Southern Illinois split their two matchups this season, both played at Carver Arena on Feb. 6 and 7. Bradley snapped its six-game conference losing skid in the first matchup 74-66 before dropping the second matchup 69-68 thanks to a free throw by Jones in the final moments.
“We weren’t playing our best offense or defense at the time,” Tahvanainen said. “We’ve just got to play together and just play extremely tough. Because Southern plays tough and they’ve really got a good defense.”
Thursday: an unfamiliar frontier
Tomorrow’s first-round game will mark the first time that Bradley has played in a Thursday game at Arch Madness since the 2016-17 season — meaning that no current Braves players have participated in the play-in round.
It will be Wardle’s third go-around on Thursday in St. Louis, and according to the sixth-year head coach, nothing changes.
“I think you take it one game at a time, honestly,” Wardle said. “You play your best players as many minutes as you need to to win, then you find the time to recover … You don’t save legs this time of year, you’ve really just got to find ways to get wins.”
Another thing Wardle has mentioned is the difficulty of winning the first game at the Enterprise Center; however, the Braves are 4-1 in the team’s opening tournament game under Wardle.
While Valparaiso played in last season’s Thursday play-in round and eventually made it to the championship, no team to play on Thursday has ever won the MVC tournament championship.
Tahvanainen won’t be discouraged by that fact.
“I feel like, in the tournament, obviously anything can happen,” Tahvanainen said. “Like last year, Valpo made it to the final and Drake beat UNI … [We need to] just go out there, hoop, have fun and play extremely tough.”
Leadership and experience
With its two seniors suspended and one junior injured, Bradley enters Arch Madness with a shocking lack of experience — just two players who will be available this weekend have played on the floor at the Enterprise Center: Tahvanainen and sophomore guard Antonio Thomas.
“My two 19-year-olds are going to be getting my young guys ready to play in Arch Madness,” Wardle said with a smile. “I don’t like hearing that, to be honest. I like my 22, 23-year-olds getting my team ready to play … We’re going to go in there and really have some fun … and make sure they’re loose with focus.”
The Braves are especially hurt by the absence of Childs, who won the tournament’s most outstanding player award in 2019 and was named to the all-tournament team last season along with senior guard Darrell Brown.
As a result, it will be Tahvanainen who has to bring his teammates — including sophomore Sean East II, McAdoo and three key freshmen — up to speed.
Despite that short-handedness, the team is certainly confident, especially thanks to the upset win over Drake.
“It just says a lot about the character and belief that we have in this locker room,” Tahvanainen said. “A lot of guys haven’t played a lot of minutes this year and they were basically thrown into the fire right away … Momentum wise, that was huge going into the tournament, just to get more belief in the guys.”
Even after an up-and-down season, Wardle and the Braves feel as if their backs still hold a target as the back-to-back tournament champs.
“I thought all year this year, we saw teams’ really good effort and toughness against us,” Wardle said. “You never know, you can see some crazy things happen in Arch Madness. Hopefully, we can put together some good basketball and kind of see what happens.”
After a season of frustration and failed expectations, Tahvanainen and company are eager for a fresh chance in St. Louis.
“Going into the Valley tournament, the record doesn’t matter,” Tahvanainen said. “I still think we have a little target on our back, definitely, and we’re going to go into the tournament with the confidence that we’ve got two in a row.”