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ISU/Bradley “rivalry” hasn’t lost its luster

Nothing riles up the winter-chilled blood in the veins of central Illinois quite like the Bradley and Illinois State rivalry.  

Arguably the most heated collegiate rivalry in the state of Illinois, the two guaranteed games between the Braves and the Redbirds are the bright spots for many fans.

While both teams sit at the bottom of the Missouri Valley Conference with only three MVC wins each, these two games are everything for the fans.

Yes, a couple more wins and a good showing in the MVC Tournament would be nice, but neither team can bank on such luck.

Gone are the days where the Redbirds soared onto the national scene with future Olympian and No. 1 NBA draft pick Doug Collins, as are the days of Hersey Hawkins and backcourt partner Jim Les.

But it doesn’t hurt to look back and remember the good old days.

When the Redbirds joined the MVC in 1981, Bradley was already established as one of the great franchises in college basketball history with multiple NIT championships and Final Four appearances.

Joining the Division I rankings in 1971, due in large part to the play of Collins and other future NBA players, the only sense of rivalry between the two was because of proximity.

The rivalry that exists today came to be in the 1980s, after the Redbirds had thrown away the independent status and joined the MVC.

From there on out, the 1980s became a battleground for the two programs.

Bounced by ISU in the 1982 and 1983 conference tournament, Bradley was losing to ISU constantly.

Then, in 1984, it all changed.

Freshman Hersey Hawkins was paired with Cleveland State transfer sophomore Jim Les. Les’ knack of getting the ball to anyone and Hersey’s ability to almost score at will meant the Redbirds had a difficult time stopping them.

After Les had departed for the NBA, Hawkin’s offense reached historic highs. He averaged 36.3 points a game his senior season in 1987-1988.

The Redbirds and Braves had already beaten each other on the road that season. So when the MVC Tournament Championship came to be Bradley versus ISU, everyone expected a game for the ages.

It wasn’t.

Bradley blasted the Redbirds out of the water, 89-59. Hawkins wasn’t going to end his Bradley career losing against the Redbirds. After another appearance in the NCAA tournament, Hawkins left to join Les in the NBA.

The next decade followed the same pattern. The Braves, behind current Cavalier shooting guard Anthony Parker, went to the tournament in 1996 and the Redbirds made the tournament in 1997 and 1998.

The 2000s saw talents such as Andrew Warren and Osiris Eldrige battle it out, but only the Braves made the tournament in the ‘00s.

These days, coach Les is a scapegoat for the Bradley fans and ISU’s only joy from this season has been a victory against the Braves in Peoria.

Now, as both teams are descending into one of the worst seasons they’ve had in decades, they find themselves together again, at the bottom of the conference.

This weekend’s game at ISU doesn’t mean much for standings or the MVC tournament, since both will play in an MVC Tournament play-in game, but it means everything for the fans.

Just ask those who left Carver Arena with their hearts torn out by the Redbirds. At least we have the good old days.

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