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Column: Braves should hold heads high despite Arch loss

Bradley men’s basketball celebrates their SoCal Challenge championship. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics.

For the second straight year, Bradley men’s basketball faced Drake at Arch Madness.

And for the second straight year, heartbreak ensued.

The Braves fell 74-67 on Saturday, but players Malevy Leons, Darius Hannah and Connor Hickman walked into the postgame press conference at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis with no regrets and no tears. Well, maybe a little bit of tears.

“Proud of these guys up here with me, all those guys in the locker room,” head coach Brian Wardle said. “I don’t think we’re done playing, but we obviously wanted to get to the NCAA Tournament [and] we wanted to get to Sunday [at Arch Madness] again. Pretty hard on us all.”

Bradley should be proud of the season they’ve had. Finishing in the top three of the Missouri Valley Conference in a year where the league jumped from the 15th-best to the ninth-best in the country (based on NET rankings) is impressive, and it’s a testament to the sweat they poured in and the pressure they overcame after a regular season championship the year before.

Just this year, Duke Deen broke the Bradley record for threes in a single game, Almar Atlason set a similar record for freshmen, the Braves won the SoCal Challenge, they completed the biggest comeback in school history and had their best start in 34 years on their way to a second straight 20-win season. All of these are huge accomplishments, especially considering the adversity the squad faced.

The transfer portal bit the Braves hard. Rienk Mast, Bradley’s leading scorer a year ago, transferred to Nebraska and is currently helping the Cornhuskers reach the Big Dance for the first time since 2014. Zek Montgomery transferred to Rhode Island and is nearly averaging double figures for the Rams.

On the flip side, Bradley’s transfers averaged 8.7 minutes a game, only once scoring in double figures this year. Add on the graduations of Ja’Shon Henry and Ville Tahvanainen, plus the departure of two of those transfers during the season, and perhaps no other team lost more than they gained quite like the Braves. That’s what makes their season that much more impressive.

Picking up the slack from a lack of transfers were a pair of freshmen. Atlason and Demarion Burch were asked to do a lot pretty quickly, but they responded by carving out important roles on the team and showing that they can be trusted when the lights get bright. That’ll be huge for the Braves to build on during their development.

A big reason the team could survive without a crop of newcomers was the improvement from their returners. The team’s “big four” of Leons, Hickman, Hannah and senior guard Duke Deen all upped their scoring averages and their shooting percentages from a year ago. Three of the four made appearances on All-Valley teams, and the other was one of the most common snubs amongst conference pundits.

The Braves also saw noted improvement from redshirt junior Christian Davis, who saw triple the playing time and more than tripled his scoring averages from last year, proving to be a reliable spot-up shooter and a tenacious defender. We also got to see what Connor Linke could do in his final year as a Brave, with the big man providing much-needed physicality down low to take the load off Leons and Hannah and match up with some of the best in the Valley down the stretch.

With a crew like that, who needs transfers anyway?

“I got winners here too,” Wardle said. “Hick[man], Duke [Deen], Maly [Leons], Darius. We pride our program on improvement, getting guys better, developing. They’ve all had a heck of a year. A lot to be proud of.”

Leons and Hannah were also dubbed the “SWAT Team” due to their propensity to swipe steals and block shots, with both of them ranking in the top 10 in the MVC in both categories. The duo makes Bradley the only team in the country with two 60-60 players over the past two seasons, and Leons in particular is the only player in Division I to achieve 80 blocks and 80 steals over the past two years.

As a back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year in the conference, Leons held MVC Player of the Year Tucker DeVries to a season-low three made shots on Saturday, keeping him without a field goal for over 13 minutes to start the game. As DeVries learned, Leons — and Hannah’s — extreme length makes it hard to get many shots off, giving opposing coaches fits trying to gameplan for them.

“That combination of quickness and length, that’s special. That’s an outlier in this league,” Illinois State head coach Ryan Pedon said after the Braves beat the Redbirds on Feb. 3. “I was in the Big Ten for five years and the Big East for two years, and I’d say 80% of teams don’t have a wing as long and athletic as Leons.”

If it wasn’t for three non-conference losses in December, all without leading scorer Hickman, the Braves would be flirting with an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Their NET ranking currently sits at 59, their KenPom is 64, they have wins against regular season conference champions Vermont and Utah State (who is ranked No. 18 in the nation) and they beat every MVC team not named Indiana State or Drake at least once.

Aside from two teams that could – and should, after an exhilarating championship game – be in the NCAA Tournament, Bradley was the best team in one of the best mid-major conferences in the country. That’s something to be proud of.

Now, the Braves look toward whatever postseason basketball lies ahead, which right now is looking like the NIT. Under the new NIT rules introduced this year, the 20 best teams in the NET that don’t make the NCAA Tournament and who don’t automatically qualify for the NIT will be selected. Bradley’s NET rating gives them a good chance to make the field.

But, they’ll have to wait for the rest of college basketball’s season to play out.

“No one game defines your year or your season. These are hard at the end of the year, these are hard to lose these games, especially when you felt you could win,” Wardle said. “The guys played their heart and soul and left it on the floor. I told them that they shouldn’t have any regrets, but it’s frustrating how we lost, put it that way.”

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