Carver Arena has always been one of the toughest places to play in the Missouri Valley Conference. Its capacity is listed at 11,442, the highest in the conference and just in front of Missouri State’s JQH Arena (11,000).
The Bradley fans show up in droves too. While average attendance for Braves’ home games has decreased over the years following the arrival of ESPN+/ESPN3 broadcasts and after the COVID-19 pandemic, those that are in the seats typically makes playing basketball very hard for Bradley’s opponents.
So hard, in fact, that the Braves now own the third-longest home winning streak among Division I schools in the nation at 17 games.
“I think its great for the program in the sense of our fans,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “Winning at home is critical to draw fan support and we’ve done that over the years and so if we can play a good brand of basketball, hopefully more fans keep coming out and that’s ultimately what you want to do is win home games.”
Just one week ago, Bradley’s home win streak sat at No. 10 among Division I schools. Then the nine teams in front of them started to crumble.
Dayton, Arkansas and Tennessee were some of the first schools ahead of the Braves to have their streaks broken. Fellow mid-majors Iona, Norfolk State and Jacksonville lost at home this past week too. On Thursday night, No. 6 in the Associated Press poll, Gonzaga, which held the nation’s longest home win streak at 76 games, fell in a major upset to Loyola Marymount.
Now, the Braves only trail Auburn (28 games) and UCLA (19 games) ahead of back-to-back home games against Belmont on Saturday and Illinois State on Wednesday.
“Just the way we move the ball offensively, we share it,” Wardle said on what his team does better at Carver Arena. “We respond a lot quicker at home but we have some adversity coming up though at home and we have some really good teams coming into our building. We’re going to have to lean on that crowd to give us that home court advantage.”
Opposing teams still seeking solution
Carver Arena is the brick, steel, glass and concrete version of the basketball player that you love if he’s on your side, but hate to play against if you’re an opponent. Bradley’s last loss at home came on January 5, 2022 in heartbreaking fashion when then-Missouri State star guard Isiaih Mosley hit a turnaround, buzzer-beater three to down the Braves 71-69. Since then, Bradley’s opponents haven’t been able to solve the puzzle of winning in Peoria.
“You have to have your ‘A’ game, your ‘B’ game on the road,” Wardle said. “You can’t have a ‘C” game, an average game. You’ve got to show up and the stars have got to be stars and you’ve got to be playing aggressive for 40 minutes to win on the road.”
This season, Bradley has won its 10 home games by an average margin of 28.1 points and the team has scored over 80 points in half of them.
So what do the Braves think is the biggest factor in that? A common answer among players was the amount of fans that show up and how much energy they bring.
Bradley is currently fourth in the MVC in average attendance at 4,097 and Saturday’s 3 p.m. contest has potential to be the highest-attended game of the 2022-23 season at Carver Arena so far.
“One of the reasons is now that COVID is pretty much behind us, people are starting to come back to games,” senior guard Ville Tahvanainen said. “That home advantage is true, but it shouldn’t change that much on the road. If you do the things you do in practice, you should be fine. The crowds coming back definitely do give teams an advantage.”
“It’s a good streak,” sophomore guard Connor Hickman said. “Carver is a great environment and the fans are great too so it’s fun to play there.”
Senior forward Ja’Shon Henry is aware of the storied basketball history that Peoria possesses, after holding the IHSA State Finals for many years, being the high school stomping grounds for future NBA players, and being the home to the Bradley’s decades-long prominence among mid-major college basketball.
“Our crowd really gets into it and there’s a rich tradition in that arena so we try and play the best we can. Obviously, home court advantage for any team is good but it’s a different feeling there. It gets really electric and the crowd really motivates us and we get really fired up.”
How the Braves do their part
The saying “The Valley runs deep” has proven its truth for yet another year with eight teams within two games of first place in the MVC. Winning on the road against Valley’s top teams is hard to come by – the top six teams in the conference are 23-5 at home combined this season –, making winning at home a necessity.
“I think you’ve just got to be an extra amount of focused and locked in and things you’ve got to do,” Henry said. “You’ve got to execute at a high level because everyone is good at home in this league and I think if you do that, you put yourself in a position to win.”
“It’s a very scouted league”, Hickman said. “A lot of tendencies and personnel is very well known and I think the home environments are a big advantage for a lot of teams.”
A typical home gameday for the Braves’ players starts with a morning shootaround, followed by some downtime to nap and relax before eating a team meal. Each player has their own pregame routine: for example, Hickman watches highlights of players on the Braves’ opponent that day, while Tahvanainen locks himself in well before tipoff.
“After a pregame meal, I just get my legs ready, stretch my legs a little bit but not go to sleep or anything because I want to be fresh in the game. And then before the game, I just take shots that I might take in the game and just get myself mentally locked in.”
Once the ball is tipped, the Braves set a goal to take control of the contest from the start. In BU’s most recent home game against Evansville, they hit their first three shots – all 3-pointers – in the opening two minutes and 18 seconds.
“That’s what you want to do at home is set the tone from the jump in those first five minutes and then sustain it,” Wardle said. That’s ultimately what you’ve got to do, is anyone that comes into the game needs to sustain that high level of energy.”
Big arena, big win streak
Aside from the fans and Bradley’s comfort of playing in their home arena, there’s another factor that opposing teams might not be used to: the size.
When shooting the ball in the 27,400 square-foot arena, depth perception is tricky and there is more space behind the backboards than other Valley arenas like Valparaiso’s Athletics Recreation Center (ARC) or Belmont’s Curb Events Center. Bradley’s opponents have shot 34.5 percent from the field at Carver Arena this season, compared to Bradley’s 52.1 percent mark.
“I think it might play a little factor, yeah, because some of the arenas that we see even in our league are smaller so that makes it tough for the road teams to come in,” Tahvanainen said.
“It’s a big place, it’s spacious and a lot of teams might not be used to that and we got some rowdy fans as well,” Hickman added.
Tahvanainen and Henry have played the most games at Carver among their teammates and are grateful for the memories and experiences they’ve enjoyed while playing there. After all, it’s not every day that a school in a perennially dog-eat-dog league ranks among college basketball titans like Auburn and UCLA in winning at home.
“My sophomore year, we had a couple overtime games in that arena where the crowd just got electric,” Henry said. “Rivalry games are always fun. There’s countless games [that could be my favorite memory there], I could go on and on.”
But the recipe for winning at home doesn’t just come from the players.
“We have a lot of support from the community,” Tahvanainen said. “We usually get a good amount of people into our games and that just gives us a lot of confidence and energy into the games and that’s the reason we’ve been so good at home.”