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Braves prepared for NCAA tournament

Senior Luqman Lundy drives to the basket in Bradley’s MVC semifinal victory over Loyola-Chicago. Photo by Justin Limoges.

The Bradley men’s basketball team enters uncharted territory Thursday, facing off against the No. 2 seeded Michigan State Spartans in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The No. 15 Braves will look for their first victory over the Big Ten champions in program history. The Spartans lead the all-time series 4-0. The teams played a three game series in 2006, 2007 and 2008, as well as a game in 1969.

Despite their 28-6 record and No. 5 national ranking, senior guard Luqman Lundy thinks the Spartans are beatable.

“Every team has a weakness,” Lundy said. “It’s not like they are a perfect team. We just have to play the way we are playing and stay confident, no matter who we are playing.”

Head coach Brian Wardle has spent the last three days watching tape on the Spartans and has concluded they have high basketball intelligence.

“They are a very smart team,” Wardle said. “They do not beat themselves. I love how they are all stars in their role. No one goes outside their lane.”

The Braves have not played since their victory over Northern Iowa on March 10. Meanwhile, the Spartans are coming off a Big Ten championship win on Sunday.

Despite not playing a game in 10 days, Wardle said he did his best to keep the team fresh.

“We tried to do as many things as game speed as possible,” Wardle said. “We scrimmaged a little bit, but we also got some rest. Will we be rusty? I hope not.”

The Braves are a stout defense team, allowing just 65 points per game. Junior guard Darrell Brown said the MVC’s defense-first mentality will help Bradley prepare for a Michigan State team averaging 78.8 points per game.

“We play defense like no other league in the country,” Brown said. “There are a bunch of grind it out games. There is a battle of toughness night in and night out.”

Last year, the MVC champion Loyola Ramblers went on to make it all the way to the Final Four, but Brown said Bradley doesn’t think about what other teams did last year.

“Honestly, we don’t like Loyola, so we don’t really talk about that run that much,” Brown said. “It’s just whatever. They did what they did, now it’s time for us to do what we do.”

After being down by 18 in the second half in the win over Northern Iowa, Wardle said his team will always keep battling. However, he said he would prefer to not fall behind Michigan State.

“We do not want to be down 18 to Michigan State tomorrow,” Wardle said. “Let me make that clear.”

In the UNI game, Lundy stepped up when the Braves were down. Wardle, Brown and Lundy all said any player on the team can be the one to provide the spark.

“It’s a next guy up mentality,” Brown said. “Last game, I didn’t have shots falling and Luqman put the team on his back.”

“We are at our best when we are playing as a team,” Wardle said. “Whoever is hot at the time, that’s who they will be talking about in the huddle.”

The Spartans and head coach Tom Izzo are playing in their 22nd straight NCAA tournament. Izzo lost to the No. 15 Middle Tennessee State in 2016. In order to avoid what happened in 2016, Izzo said his team needs to stop Bradley’s shooters.

“They’ve got guards that can shoot it with Brown and Kennell,” Izzo said. “I think that’s always the worry with a lower seed against a higher seed is the three point shot. I’ve seen some nights when they’ve made made a ton of them from long long range.”

No matter the result, Wardle said he just wants his team to have fun on and off the court.

“I want these guys to enjoy the moment out here,” Wardle said. “Life is about memories. You forget the games, you forget the stats. When you get to my age, you forget all that stuff. You remember the bonding.”

Bradley made national headlines last weekend after revoking media access to Peoria Journal Star reporter Dave Reynolds.

Bradley apologized to Reynolds and restored his access. Wardle said he apologized to Reynolds on Sunday and the matter has been resolved.

“We had a great talk and we’re excited to meet after the season and work some things out and continue to build our relationship,” Wardle said. “I learned a lot.”

The Braves and the Spartans are scheduled to tip off at 1:45 CDT. at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa. The game will be broadcast on CBS.

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