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Column: Bradley basketball programs are well-equipped to handle challenges of being mid-majors

Bradley men’s basketball breaks their huddle before tipoff. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

It’s the best of times but it’s also the worst of times in college basketball. If you’ve been anywhere near a television in the last week, chances are that it’s likely producing the soothing tones of Kevin Harlan and Jim Nantz narrating a thrilling March Madness game as a tiny, private school on the East Coast upsets a power conference Goliath.

But once attention shifts from the television to a phone or computer screen, that’s where the soothing tones stop. A quick scroll through Twitter, Facebook or even fan message boards inevitably brings up news that no college basketball fan wants to hear: your favorite player, an intriguing bench player or the team’s heart and soul, isn’t returning next season.

Caroline Waite looks on at Renaissance Coliseum. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

Bradley’s men’s and women’s basketball teams have already suffered the anguish of their stalwarts leaving. First Team All-MVC forward Rienk Mast, the anchor of Bradley’s strong post play the last three seasons, announced on Monday that he was entering the transfer portal. Before Mast’s declaration, Caroline Waite, the leading scorer of Bradley’s women’s team as an underclassman the last two seasons, announced on March 13 that she was hitting the portal.

In news not as surprising, Bradley men’s basketball senior Ville Tahvanainen is forgoing his final year of eligibility that was granted by COVID to chase his dreams of playing professionally. Ja’Shon Henry, Bradley’s locker room leader and its bull-in-a-china shop in the paint, used his final year of eligibility this past season. The duo combined to make the Braves’ bench one of the deepest in the Missouri Valley Conference the last two seasons and, along with Mast, were the last players remaining from Bradley’s MVC Tournament Championship in 2020.

The Braves men’s team was likely prepared for their trio to leave. Henry was guaranteed to leave after this past season, Tahvanainen’s shooting ability and ties to Finland made an overseas pro career likely and Mast, a physics major, is set to graduate in May and Bradley does not offer a master’s degree in physics. While Mast’s decision to enter the transfer portal instead of going pro was about as unexpected as Waite’s similar choice, it’s the reality of the all-out free agency that is going on in college basketball now. 

Since players entering the transfer portal no longer have to sit out a year, athletes looking for new beginnings can follow a coach they like playing under or join a conference or NCAA title contender. They can also pursue more name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities and playing time if their role on the team won’t fit in the upcoming season.

Now, this isn’t a column where I wring my hands and bemoan “There’s no loyalty in college basketball anymore!” We’re now in the third year of the transfer portal and the topic doesn’t need to be rehashed (more on Bradley and the transfer portal here and here); it’s now well-ingrained unless the NCAA makes an unlikely decision to eliminate it.

Do I love the transfer portal and the idea of mid-major basketball stars almost inevitably moving on to play for big schools? Not exactly, and I’m a big believer that mid-major schools are consistently undervalued. Just look at Princeton, Florida Atlantic and San Diego State all still dancing in the NCAA Tournament. Furthermore, three of the four NIT semifinal games pitted mid-majors against schools from more respected conferences. The “little guys” won all three. 

Bradley’s Terry Roberts scans the floor. Photo by Larry Larson

Bradley and schools similar to it can win all they want, but the downside to that success is having their best players poached away by a program with more exposure and easier pathways to the NBA or WNBA. Lasha Petree, who helped lead the Braves to their first NCAA Tournament program appearance, transferred to the Big Ten and declared for the WNBA Draft on Thursday. Earlier in the week on the men’s side, former Braves point guard Terry Roberts did likewise for the NBA Draft after transferring to Georgia in 2021. 

Bradley’s NIL collective, Home of the Brave, deserves credit for signing all Bradley men’s basketball players that were eligible for it to a deal and being the first such collective in the MVC. The shirt-jerseys with players’ names and numbers on the back were plentiful in the stands and it puts Bradley ahead of most of their conference rivals in the NIL landscape, but let’s be honest, it’s extremely hard for them to compete with the shellouts from similar groups at Power 6 schools. At the moment, Home of the Brave does not sign athletes from other sports such as women’s basketball, although their website states that they might aim to do so in the future. 

While Bradley and other schools in the Valley can be labeled as a “stepping stone” for their most talented players, the Braves can still succeed and have a consistent identity. Between both men’s and women’s teams, Bradley has taken home four MVC championships in the last five years.

After two seasons of being sidetracked, the men’s team returned to prominence by winning the MVC regular season for the first time in 27 years and earning a berth in the NIT. Record book-worthy feats were achieved awards were won by multiple players and head coach Brian Wardle and over 10,000 seats were filled at Carver Arena for a game for the first time in over a decade.

Even with Mast leaving, the Braves are set up well for the 2023-24 season, at least for the moment. Barring any unforeseen transfers, starters Duke Deen, Connor Hickman, Zek Montgomery and Malevy Leons could all return. In order, that’s Bradley’s vocal leader, a solid two-way guard, a tantalizing wing with lots of talent and the reigning MVC Defensive Player of the Year. Bradley learned from Drake in the MVC Tournament championship game in St. Louis that experience wins big games at the mid-major level and this will be the most they’ve had since their last Arch Madness championship season in 2020.   

Serbian native Ahmet Jonovic drives to the basket. Photo by Jenna Zeise

With three players leaving and one high school recruit, guard Demarion Burch from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, committed to join the Braves in a few months, Bradley has two open scholarships to fill. Finding a big paint presence will be a priority for the Braves in the transfer portal, as well as a strong-shooting guard. Wardle has brought in international talent better than just about anyone at the MVC level during his tenure too. Finding another Rienk Mast may be easier said than done. However, 7-foot-1 center Ahmet Jonovic’s future could be bright with an offseason of heavy work and if anyone can go out and find Mast 2.0, it’s Wardle and the Braves coaching staff. The prospect of contending for another MVC Championship in a city that’s accelerating its support for the Braves makes for a pretty attractive destination for transfers or players from a different country. 

It’s not false to say that Bradley women’s basketball endured choppier waters as the Braves finished in the basement of the MVC in head coach Kate Popovec-Goss’ first season. However, they return nearly their entire roster and Popvec-Goss will have another year to add on more building blocks. It may be too early to say so, but it’s too easy not to draw comparisons between her squad and the nation’s youngest team that Wardle inherited at Bradley in 2015 before winning championships just a few years later.

The women’s basketball team may be closer to turning the corner than some may think. This year on many occasions,the Braves were competitive outside of a stretch of a few minutes of the game. Next season, four-star point guard Halli Poock has a real chance to be one of the best incoming freshmen that Bradley’s women’s program has had. Local phenom Claire McDougall of Washington is also committed to play at Bradley in the fall; she can play virtually any position and will give the Peoria area another reason to pay attention. 

There’s been plenty of “tear-eye” emojis among Bradley’s fanbase on Twitter when the farewells of Mast, Waite and Tahvanainen were announced and there’s a good reason why. Nobody likes change, especially when those players, along with Henry, have given so much to their teams. 

Those sad sentiments are signs that Bradley’s basketball programs are exiting one era and entering another, but their foundations have already been set. It’s not an easy time to not be a power conference school in basketball and the old days of keeping a core together for four years are all but over. However, the Braves can very well be the exception to the rule and succeed amidst the mid-major madness.

One Comment

  1. Robert Marich Robert Marich March 24, 2023

    Agreed. And for the men’s team, that 10-game winning streak at end of season should be a recruiting magnet (come to Bradley and win!) I think that it’s overlooked at the MVC conference is an ideal place to build. Good competition though not overpowering. Note that Loyola Chicago and Wichita State are struggling after leaving MVC and the replacement schools are good.

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