Peoria, Illinois is a basketball town, plain and simple. Bradley Braves basketball is the lifeblood of the area and many high school players from Peoria have found success playing in college and even the NBA. However, the hub of Peoria hoops, Carver Arena, has lain dormant to the general public for many months.
COVID-19 prevented any tickets from being sold to Bradley basketball games in 2020. In addition to not having fans fill the stands for Braves games, Carver was stripped of hosting the IHSA state basketball tournament for the near future after hosting the event since 1996.
Not to worry though, as Peoria will play home to pulse-pounding basketball once again this summer, this time on a national stage. Fans will be able to watch in person as past Bradley legends take the floor as a team.
The Basketball Tournament (TBT) announced in mid-April that Peoria was selected as a regional host site for the 64-team tournament with games played at Carver Arena. TBT is a relatively new competition after its genesis in 2014. Sixty-four teams compete and applications are open to anyone; however, teams are mostly comprised of current professionals. The tournament champions receive a $1 million prize and games are broadcast on the ESPN family of networks.
Bradley’s alumni team, Always a Brave, returns to the court after a two-year hiatus and carries a significant load of excitement for Braves fans and the Peoria area.
“People from TBT are familiar with Always a Brave through our previous participation in the tournament,” Always a Brave director of operations Bobby Parker said. “I think they had a good experience in working with us, we were pretty organized and our guys have always been appreciative of the opportunity so they’ve always wanted us to play. This year the opportunity presented itself to host so it made a really enticing opportunity to get the guys back together again.”
Always a Brave made appearances in TBT each year from 2016-2018, hosting the Midwest Regional at Renaissance Coliseum in 2017. This year is a different story though, as attendance is expected to increase due to TBT’s recent boom in popularity.
“When we first played in 2016, I got to know people that were on TBT during that experience and I kept telling them that Peoria would be a great place for this, it’d be perfect,” Parker said.
At the time, TBT conducted regionals in larger cities, such as Philadelphia and Chicago. The tournament drew average crowds of only 500 to 1,000 people, due to the lack of attention in the biggest cities in America where so much was already happening.
“The event was not on the radar as much since they were not college basketball towns. I told them that Peoria is a college basketball town and I felt like the community would embrace the event and our team,” Parker said. “We drew record crowds, we had close to 3,000 when Always a Brave played”
“I think when you throw that experience [hosting in 2017] in with the combination of having the Illinois’ team [House of ‘Paign] along with us, it made for a great opportunity for us to do it at Carver Arena,” Parker added.
Peoria was originally slated to be a TBT Regional host in 2022, but plans for the original host city fell through, allowing the River City to step into the spotlight yet again.
“Actually they had decided that they were going to come to Peoria next year and then they had some changes with another venue they were looking at,” Parker said. “They decided that they needed to re-evaluate and the opportunity to come back to Peoria presented itself.”
The tournament at 11,442-seat Carver Arena will be open to fans at a 60 percent capacity limit as of late May, but the number could go up to 100 percent capacity if Illinois enters into Phase 5 of COVID-19 re-openings. TBT will mark the first event open to the public at the downtown arena since the pandemic started.
“WE GOT GUYS FROM DIFFERENT ERAS”
As far as on-court action is concerned, Always a Brave and the University of Illinois’ alumni team, House of ‘Paign, are the two featured teams for the regional, meaning they are exempt from swimming in the sea of teams trying to qualify. The other 14 teams set to be playing in Peoria will be announced at a later date.
The Always a Brave roster consists of a few recent players, some names of Bradley lore from the 2010s and 2000s and a coaching staff with a rich history of Bradley basketball.
Head coach Daniel Ruffin was a standout for the Braves from 2005-2008 and played a large role for the 2006 Sweet Sixteen team. While Ruffin took the court for Always a Brave since its inception, an Achilles injury during TBT in 2018 effectively ended his playing career. Although he is currently the head coach at Peoria High School, his alma mater, this is the first time Ruffin has coached for Always a Brave.
“The difference is I consider coaching in TBT for the Always a Brave team as a professional job,” Ruffin said. “These are a bunch of guys that have played professionally at some point or are looking to play professionally and it’s just an opportunity for me to grow as a coach, build my character, and learn the game from a different aspect than a player.”
Accompanying Ruffin on the sidelines is Chuck Buescher, who coached the former during his playing days and followed Ruffin by coaching him at Bradley. The biggest task for the coaching tandem is keeping fresh legs on the floor, a more significant problem when many players on the roster are over the age of 30.
“That’s going to be one of [Buescher’s] main focuses as well, subbing guys in and out at the right time. You don’t want to overplay anybody and overuse their legs because we want them to be able to last the whole week and we’re planning for the long haul,” Ruffin said. “He has the most experience out of anybody that’s even a part of the team right now so just being able to have him as my right-hand man on the bench is an honor.
Darrell Brown and Nate Kennell will suit up for the first time after leading Bradley to back-to-back conference titles in 2018 and 2019. Donte Thomas will also play a key role as small forward for Always a Brave. Thomas was a second team-All MVC selection during his senior year of 2017-18 and is currently playing professionally in Italy.
“Obviously, I think Darrell Brown is going to be a key for our team. He’s a guy that can kind of control the pace and get everybody shots that need shots and he has the ability to get his own shot. From that standpoint as a point guard, that’s kind of what I’m looking for because without a point guard, it doesn’t even matter in my eyes,” Ruffin said.
The roster also includes players from the early 2010’s such as current pros Auston Barnes and Jimmy Gavin who have had successful careers overseas. Past and current fan-favorites Marcellus Sommerville and Tony Bennett led Bradley to a NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2006 and return to play for Always a Brave in 2021.
SAME AS 2018? NOT QUITE
While some names such as Sommerville, Bennett and Barnes are Always a Brave veterans, the team will look to inject new life with younger players like Brown, Kennell, Thomas, Luqman Lundy and Max Bielfeldt.
Alongside getting every man on the roster playing minutes, the other main task for Ruffin and the coaching staff is that of chemistry and blending the old with the new.
“In 2018, we had a majority of guys that all played together on the college level so we already kind of had that chemistry. I think this year it’ll be a little different because we got guys from different eras that pretty much haven’t even met each other. So even though we’re all Bradley Braves, we still have some building to do,” Ruffin said. “The upside is we are a lot younger; we got fresher legs so that helps on the flip side.”
Brown, Kennell and Lundy are the youngest players on the roster and still in the prime of their athletic years. Although Bielfeldt did not play collegiately at Bradley, the forward was a graduate of Peoria Notre Dame High School in 2011 and played in the bright lights of the Big Ten for Michigan and Indiana until 2016. Lundy made his TBT debut in 2020, playing for the Peoria All-Stars alongside former Braves center Koch Bar.
While still hanging on to players that made the Bradley program nationally recognized a decade and a half ago, Always a Brave will look to keep the roster fresh with new players in the years to come.
“I just try to make sure the guys have a good experience and I feel good about that because since we started doing this in 2016, the current players during that time have always come up to me and said ‘Hey, if we’re doing Always a Brave again, I want to play,’” Parker said.
Always a Brave will begin practicing on June 10 and will continue until the start of the regional on July 24.
“Obviously in my mind, as a coach, we’re going to practice every day,” Ruffin laughed. “But obviously we’re older, we don’t necessarily need practice every day, we just need to go over some of our sets and some of our offenses that we plan to run. A lot of our training camp will be focusing on getting our rhythm, building our chemistry, getting shots up and a little bit of conditioning just to see where we’re at.”
PEORIA ON THE NATIONAL STAGE
It’s not every day that a nationally televised event takes a trip to Peoria. As exciting as the event is for hoops enthusiasts, its impact reaches to more than just Bradley basketball fans.
TBT is a new concept to some, especially after the 2020 edition. The tournament was held in a bubble environment in Columbus, Ohio and televised on ESPN in July, when many professional sports were not playing, thus dramatically increasing its exposure.
“It’s a very high-level tournament, there’s a lot at stake with a million-dollar prize and so it is exciting to see a Bradley-based team compete at a high level. We have those expectations for our basketball program and it’s great when it transfers over to these guys after they left Bradley as well,” Parker said.
Fans, even those from different teams, will get a taste of the finest things Peoria has to offer both on and off the court.
On the court, local players like Sommerville, Kennell and coach Ruffin will get a chance to display their skills to the country. Off the court, those who travel to the tournament will boost the Peoria economy, looking to rebound after COVID-19.
“We’ll have teams coming in from all parts of the country to Peoria and I think it’s just a great opportunity to showcase how great basketball is in the fabric of Peoria. Our community needs this, everybody across the country has struggled with COVID but there’s going to be 15 teams coming to Peoria,” Parker said. “They’re going to stay in hotel rooms and have fans that will want to come to Peoria. They’re going to come to our restaurants, they’re going to come enjoy other things that Peoria has to offer and I think it’s a great thing because we are emerging slowly from this pandemic.”
Adding to the pride that Bradley and the city of Peoria have in hosting the tournament is being one of the few teams in TBT whose players all played for the same school. While some teams bring in players from across the country, or even internationally, one thing about Always a Brave is that the team is distinctly Bradley. Ruffin said that same aesthetic will show when the team plays.
“The one thing is, no matter what era you played in at Bradley, the one thing we’ve always been was underrated and I think that’s what builds our character. We feed off of that and it just makes us go harder,” Ruffin said. “That’s okay that people think we’re not going to be in the top of the rankings; I don’t really want to be because that puts a bullseye on you. When we do get a win or two, people are going to start talking about us like with what happened in 2016. We weren’t expected to go to the [semifinals].”
While alumni teams from Dayton, Illinois and Ohio State may command more attention and headlines going into this year’s edition of TBT, Ruffin said that winning a few games in the single-elimination tournament will lead to a national buzz around Always a Brave.
“That’s our end goal. We don’t care about people talking about us before the tournament, they’re going to talk about us after the tournament,” Ruffin said.
ENJOYING THE PRESENT, BUILDING THE FUTURE
After a tumultuous year for Bradley basketball, Carver Arena, and the country as a whole, TBT will look to bring the fun back to Peoria. Having the opportunity to attend a live sporting event in person is nothing short of a blessing, and even more exciting for fans of the Braves. Carver Arena will come alive when Always a Brave plays and TBT will serve as a starting point for the crescendo to the Bradley basketball season.
“The biggest thing is I want [the players] to come back and be excited about representing Bradley University again,” Parker said. “If you get a bunch of people to come out and watch your games in the summertime, that certainly raises the bar of expectations for what we’ll do during the actual basketball season.”
The TBT Midwest Regional will take place July 24-28. Ticket information can be found here.