In each of head coach Brian Wardle’s four seasons at the helm of Bradley basketball, the program has progressed.
Last season saw the second 20-win campaign in as many seasons that culminated with the program’s first Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship in 31 years.
What’s the next step for the program to continue its ascent?
“We want to contend to a regular season title, and have more balance and consistency in conference play,” Wardle said. “If our offense can be more balanced with our [defense] and we can stay more consistent, I like how competitive our group can be.”
The Braves are picked to finish second in the MVC preseason poll, receiving five first place votes, behind favorite Missouri State.
Bradley is led by a strong group of returners, including the team’s top three scorers: senior guard Darrell Brown, junior forward Elijah Childs and senior guard Nate Kennell. Brown was voted first team preseason All-MVC, with Childs receiving second team recognition.
Brown led the team in scoring last season, posting 14.8 points per game, including 17 in the NCAA Tournament first round loss to No. 2 seed Michigan State.
“All six returners we got here, we all want to get back to the tournament,” Brown said. “That feeling of winning games and being on the big stage, it means the world.”
Childs was named the Arch Madness most outstanding player last season, and led the team in scoring in the Michigan State game, with 19 points to go with three blocks.
“I’m a confident player, and I think I’m more confident than last year,” Childs said. “I’m confident in my teammates, and they have confidence in me. My coaching staff has got confidence in me. Last year we had confidence in ourselves.”
Despite the return of the top scorers, Bradley graduated some key pieces of last year’s team. The Braves have to rely on their nine newcomers to replace the production and intangibles of graduates Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye, Luqman Lundy and Luuk van Bree.
“Leadership and toughness is always hard to replace, and those seniors had that,” Wardle said. “They led positively but held other players accountable on the court and off the court. I think our seniors are doing a good job of carrying that torch right now, but that’s always something we’ve got to improve upon.”
Sophomore swingman Ja’Shon Henry will see an increase in minutes and will be one of the main players filling the “glue-guy” shoes left vacant by the graduates. In 29 games, Henry averaged 4.2 points and 2.4 rebounds off the bench last season.
LSU transfer and redshirt-junior Danya Kingsby will step into a large role into the backcourt alongside Brown. In two years of junior college ball at Southern Idaho, Kingsby averaged 12.7 points and 3.8 assists while shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range.
In the frontcourt, the Braves will be thin early in the season. Freshman forward Rienk Mast suffered an ACL injury over the summer and will likely not see the floor this season while recovering from surgery. Sophomore center Ari Boya also underwent a procedure over the offseason and likely won’t be back until the non-conference slate.
Senior center Koch Bar, who averaged 5.7 points and 4.3 rebounds in 18 games last year, will carry most of the load with his beefed-up physique. Henry and Stephan Gabriel, two undersized bigs, will have to play the stretch four and Childs will step into the stretch five at times.
“Everybody’s got to sacrifice on the team, that’s the beauty of being a teammate,” Wardle said. “[Gabriel] and Ja’Shon are versatile players that can play on the wing too, but we’re gonna need them to play a little skilled four.”
Gabriel, a 6-foot-7-inch, 225-pound freshman swingman, is likely to have a big role. Freshman guards Antonio Thomas and Ville Tahvanainen will see some minutes as well.
The Braves non-conference schedule is a step up from last year’s slate. It includes opponents like Northwestern, followed by Kansas State or Pitt at the Fort Myers tip-off classic Nov. 25-27, nationally ranked Memphis on Dec. 3 and Toledo on Dec. 28.
“I think we’re bringing in some really good names and programs into our building,” Wardle said. “We’re excited to compete against contenders, we just want to play as many contenders in their league, I don’t care what league they play in.”
A tougher non-conference schedule will prepare Bradley for the rigor of conference play in a strong Missouri Valley, which starts Dec. 31 at Carver Arena when it hosts Drake.
“I think our league is very deep and very talented from top to bottom, there are no drop offs,” Wardle said.
After starting MVC play 0-5 last year, maintaining a high level of play heading into conference will be a focus.
“Hopefully we can have a fast start to the non-conference [schedule] like we did last year,” Wardle said. “But it’s about maintaining that consistency and that play all the way until league play.”
Last year’s season had a defined theme: #TheArrival. Now that the Braves have arrived as a power in the MVC, there isn’t a new hashtag for the year.
“We don’t have a theme, really this year,” Wardle said, donning a #TheArrival shirt.
However, Wardle and the team are focused enjoying the journey as a whole.
“Even through the highs and the lows, you never know what can happen,” Wardle said. “Last year, those seniors that were at the game and those students that were at the Valley tournament … that’s a memory they’ll always remember. Our goal is to make more memories for everybody.”
The Braves officially start their journey on Tuesday in Philadelphia at Saint Joseph’s. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m. central.