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Welcome home: Previewing the Braves’ NIT

Bradley during a timeout against UIC at Arch Madness on March 8, 2024. Photo by Rodrigo Perez.

Bradley men’s basketball is looking for more than just hardware at the National Invitational Tournament (NIT); they’re looking for more time. 

“We want to keep playing with each other as much as we can, everybody loves each other on the team,” senior guard Duke Deen said. “So if we could just play one more time with Maly [Malevy Leons], I mean everybody’s happy.”

After their semifinal loss against Drake at Arch Madness, this iteration of the Braves will get another chance to play together as they face a familiar foe in Loyola-Chicago in the first round of the NIT. 

“I think it’s a little bit more of a, not really a team rivalry but more of a conference rivalry,” junior guard Connor Hickman said. “A big rivalry, or used to be, but I guess it still is now, and then for us to get a home game for our fans to come out and watch us one last time. That’s awesome.”

Duke Deen goes for a layup against Drake during their semifinal Arch Madness matchup on March 9, 2024. Photo by Mason Klemm.

Navigating the NIT

Bradley (22-11) starts their NIT journey against former Missouri Valley Conference member Loyola-Chicago this Wednesday at 6 p.m. The Braves are hosting their first NIT game since the 2006-07 season when they faced Providence in the opening round.

The Ramblers come into this matchup with a 23-9 overall record and a 15-3 conference record this season. With that mark, Loyola shared the Atlantic 10 regular season conference title with fellow NIT participant Richmond. 

Coming in as the two-seed at the Atlantic 10 conference tournament, the Ramblers faced St. Bonaventure, who battled through double overtime to defeat Loyola 75-74. 

In the latest edition to this once common rivalry, two teams who fell in their respective conference tournaments now get a chance to pick themselves up and keep their postseason alive. 

“Elite defensive team, they get a lot of steals, they block a lot of shots, they were in the top 30 or 50 in Kenpom,” head coach Brian Wardle said. “Defensively, offensively, they run a lot of good actions and sets with a really good point guard and Braden Norris, you know, Norris is a winner, always has been in his career.”

“They were the two seed in the Atlantic 10 for a reason. And so we got our hands full, and we’re gonna have to play really good basketball to beat [them],” Wardle added. 

Bradley holds a 37-33 advantage over the Ramblers and despite their last matchup at Carver Arena ending in a Bradley victory, Loyola delivered one final blow with a 66-50 victory over the Braves at the Arch Madness quarterfinals during the 2021-22 season. 

“We were battling them especially in 2019-20 and it was a lot of fun and we had some heated games, some close games at Loyola, close games in Peoria,” Wardle said. “So we’re excited for the competition and to bring them back to Peoria because we’ve had some great games against each other.”

While their journey starts at home, if the Braves find success they could face either second seed Cincinnati (20-14) or unseeded San Francisco (23-10). Since the Bearcats have the higher seed, if they move past the Dons, they would host the second round of the NIT. 

However, if San Francisco defeats the former valley opponent, then the Braves could potentially host a second game at Carver Arena. Still, before Bradley can think of hosting a second NIT game, they have to get past their first one.

Connor Hickman scans the court against UIC at Arch Madness on March 8, 2024. Photo by Rodrigo Perez.

Past and present

The Braves have many fond NIT memories, as they have been crowned champions four times with their latest one coming back in 1982. Their 23 appearances in the tournament is the third most all-time.

Last season, Bradley took a trip up north to meet Big 10 opponent Wisconsin in the first round of the NIT after falling in the Arch Madness Championship game against Drake. However, the Braves trip was cut short as they fell 81-62 to the Badgers.

“I feel like last year we were still dealing with a lot of emotions. I mean, we lost in the championship game on Sunday, and we were back in the gym on Wednesday,” Deen said. “So it was just people were still emotional and we still felt like we should have been in the [NCAA] tournament.” 

This marks the first time the Braves have received consecutive invitations to the tournament since the 1994 and 1995 seasons. Compared to last year’s tournament, players are feeling differently heading into this one. 

“I think it’s different this year, because last year we had won the regular season, we made it to the championship game and we lost in pretty bad fashion,” Hickman said. “But I think this is a little bit different because we didn’t win any championships [this season]. I think we have a marginal edge to it.” 

With a short break from the action after their Arch Madness loss 10 days ago, the Braves used it wisely.

“You got to take some days away after a conference tournament if you have the opportunity to, and we did,” Wardle said. “And then it’s back to work and I think that’s important to do this time of year, it’s a long season, and it’s a grinding season.”

“But I feel our guys’ hearts and minds are in a good place and are excited to compete,” Wardle said.

With recent missteps now in the rear view mirror and with the Braves reloaded, Bradley will have to use what they learned at Arch Madness in order to harvest postseason success.

“I think probably starting games more under control, you know, not getting too excited for those postseason games, because those single elimination games can get you really excited. So I think just staying more calm to start the game,” Hickman said.

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