After a team meeting on Friday afternoon, the Bradley men’s basketball team seemed to be in good spirits at its Renaissance Coliseum practice facility.
Players laughed and smiled, some got shots up, while others circled up to dribble a basketball like a soccer ball, dishing out kicks and headers to each other.
The atmosphere was one of a team that was tight-knit and abundant with chemistry. However, it felt far from an atmosphere of a team that just had its chance to play in the NCAA tournament abruptly taken away.
Outside, there was widespread frustration, commotion and sadness in the sports realm due to the cancellation of March Madness because of COVID-19. Inside, for about 45 minutes, things seemed eerily like business as usual on the east side of Bradley’s campus.
Despite the abandonment of the iconic tournament that the team was about to play in for the second straight year, each player that met with the media shared the same thoughts: gratefulness for being able to play their conference tournament and win.
“I’m thankful we got to play our conference tournament, I know some other conferences didn’t get to,” junior Elijah Childs said.
“Getting that chance to go to St. Louis, play our conference tournament … A lot of student athletes didn’t get a chance to play, even finish the season,” senior Koch Bar said. “My heart goes out to them, man.”
Just 12 out of the 32 NCAA Division I conference tournaments were completed. While watching the soon to be cancelled tournaments, some Braves figured the big dance was on the ropes.
“I think I was watching ESPN, I was about to watch an ACC game and they cancelled the game,” senior Darrell Brown said. “I was really waiting on the news, I kinda expected them to cancel [the NCAA tournament], so I wasn’t really too caught off-guard or anything like that.”
Players may not have been caught off guard when the decision to call off the tournament came out on Thursday afternoon, but after Sunday’s championship-clinching victory the virus wasn’t even in the back of the team’s mind.
“Afterwards we were all just celebrating, having a good time,” sophomore Ja’Shon Henry said. “We didn’t think it was going to progress as fast as it did within this week … This is definitely not, at all, what we thought was going to happen.”
Once it did set in that Sunday was the last game of the season, Brown, who received MVP chants and left the court to a rousing standing ovation from Bradley fans, was reminiscent.
“It definitely didn’t cross my mind that it was my last game, but once I found out it was my last game, I looked back at all the videos and stuff like that and I mean, you can’t have a much better result than winning a championship and cutting down nets as your last memory in college basketball,” Brown said.
When the team’s seniors – Brown, Bar and Nate Kennell – joined the program, the team was coming off a five-win season. Following this season in which the Braves finished with a record of 23-11, the third consecutive season with 20 wins or more, the veterans are at peace considering the success of their four-year careers.
“I remember my freshman year playing Wichita State, Illinois State, these loaded teams and I was just thinking ‘I want to be like these teams that just dominate,’” Kennell said. “In our own way, we’ve done that.”
“I’m more than content with what I accomplished in four years,” Brown said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity I got, I think I made the most of it, and I helped the program go from what it was to where it is now, five to 23 wins, so that’s special and I can’t ask for much more than that.”
The four-year development has been especially gratifying for Bar, a South Sudan native who started playing basketball at an older age than some of his peers.
“Looking back to where I come from as a player, from my freshman year to now, it’s a big leap for me,” Bar said. “There aren’t a lot of people from where I come from that made it that far. Not a lot of people in my position that start basketball late get the chance to get better every day.”
Looking ahead to next season, while the team loses the aforementioned four-year players, it returns two starters in Childs and redshirt-junior Danya Kingsby in addition to big-minute players like Henry and freshman sharpshooter Ville Tahvanainen. The Braves will also add two transfer guards coming off their redshirt years, Terry Nolan and Kevin McAdoo.
With a strong core, the Braves have confidence they can find themselves in this position again next season.
“I don’t have any problems with saying that I think we can get there again,” Henry said. “I think we’re going to hopefully make some more noise next year and that’s already on our minds. This year is over. Now it’s a matter of just ‘alright, next year is started.’”