On Jan. 25, Bradley men’s basketball had just seven players available for its road game against Indiana State. With just six scholarship players in the rotation, the Braves fell by eight points.
Head coach Brian Wardle doesn’t anticipate running into that situation again this season. As Bradley begins its quest for its third straight Missouri Valley Conference tournament title and first regular season championship since 1996, depth may be the team’s biggest strength.
“Anybody can start, any given night,” senior forward Elijah Childs said. “We could have guys that can play multiple positions. We have guys coming off the bench that can start, play multiple positions and finish games for us.”
While the Braves return two starters, including Childs and fellow senior Danya Kingsby, much of the squad’s depth will come from a sizable class of newcomers – three transfers and five freshmen.
Those three transfers – junior guards Terry Nolan and Kevin McAdoo and sophomore guard Sean East II – all enter with previous Division-I experience and figure to make an immediate impact in the backcourt following the graduation of Darrell Brown and Nate Kennell.
“With Nate and DB, we lost scoring,” Nolan, who redshirted last season in Peoria, said. “I kind of got to pick up that role a little bit with the scoring aspect, leading, 3-point shooting and definitely defense also.”
Nolan has shown off his scoring and passing ability before in two seasons at George Washington, averaging 9.8 points and two assists per game. McAdoo has also scored at a similar rate, averaging 8.6 points per game in two seasons at Eastern Michigan before his transfer redshirt season.
East, who received a waiver for immediate eligibility, is a candidate to replace Brown as point guard. As a freshman, the 6-foot-3-inch East led Massachusetts with 4.9 assists per game to go along with 9.3 points. In comparison, Brown averaged 4.7 assists per contest last season.
Sophomore guards Ville Tahvanainen and Antonio Thomas could also receive big minutes after playing roles off the bench last year. Tahvanainen was second to Kennell in 3-point percentage and averaged over six points per game. Thomas started seven games and stepped up during Brown’s midseason injury.
Add in Kingsby, who averaged nearly eight points per game last season, and Wardle has no shortage of options at the one and two guard positions.
“[McAdoo and Nolan] have a great feel for our system, our culture,” Wardle said. “Very talented; quick, fast, they can playmake, they can guard … I like our guard play, it’s very deep.”
Much of the team’s newfound depth is in the frontcourt, a spot where Bradley was particularly thin last season. All five of the team’s freshmen can play forward, after only featuring five total forwards last season.
Of those five freshmen, Rienk Mast is the most experienced, having played for Donar of the Dutch Basketball League. After tearing his ACL during the summer of 2019 playing in the Netherlands, Mast spent his first season with the team rehabbing. The 6 foot-9 inch, 240-pound Dutchman has impressed those inside the program with his versatility.
In addition to Childs – the team’s leading returning scorer and lone All-Conference preseason first-team selection – junior forward Ja’Shon Henry and junior center Ari Boya, return from back-to-back title squads.
Despite the graduation of starting center Koch Bar, the confidence is high among the group.
“I don’t think we’re going to struggle rebounding,” Childs, last season’s leading rebounder, said. “Rienk Mast can space the floor. All we need Ari to do is catch, turn and dunk, rebound, block shots … I think this frontcourt is probably going to be the best frontcourt in the MVC.”
With innumerous talent amongst the group, team cohesiveness remains paramount, especially in 2020, which saw limited summer practices and off-court bonding experiences.
“Chemistry is gonna be big,” Wardle said. ”Our basketball IQ, how smart this team is in picking up the offense and the schemes, is going to be very important. Just getting the newcomers to understand what we stand for in our program. That’s the unselfish play, we protect each other and we play for each other … so far, it’s been really good. All our transfers and newcomers have really bought in to the system and to the culture of the program.”
That culture, established by now-tried-and-true mantras such as “be a star in your role” and “compete, defend, rebound,” is what Childs and others point to as a difference-maker across the last two seasons.
This season, that culture has taken another step forward according to those in the locker room.
“We have a very vocally led team this year, it seems like, more than the past years that I’ve been here,” Henry said. “A player-led team is what the coaches always kind of preach and that’s what I’ve noticed.”
Having earned an NCAA Tournament bid each of the last two seasons, the Braves are hungry for that same taste of success. However, revenge is a dish best served cold and the team knows that come conference play, they’ll be circled on opponents’ calendars.
“We have to act like we haven’t won anything; I think that’s the biggest thing,” Childs said. “If you get too comfortable, you can get passed by. We just stay hungry and be ready to work every day we step on that floor.”
As the old adage goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
So, despite the new-look roster and changes brought about by COVID-19, the goals and the mantras preached in the Braves’ locker room remain.
“We get after it, we still do our regular stuff … As far as the season, I really don’t think a lot of things are changed,” Childs said. “My expectations for this year are to just be in the same spot that we were last year… I want to be at the top of the league. I feel like this team can be at the top of the league.”