The Missouri Valley Conference released its men’s and women’s basketball preseason polls and all-conference teams this week, and both of Bradley’s squads were selected to finish in the middle of the pack.
The women were selected to finish in fifth place, led by fifth-year senior all-conference selection Gabi Haack. The men were polled to come in sixth, headlined by all-conference third teamers, senior Ja’Shon Henry and sophomore Rienk Mast.
The polling spots for both teams are a departure from the norm of the last few seasons — the men’s sixth place selection is the team’s lowest since they were picked to finish seventh in 2017. The women’s polling spot is its lowest since the 2018 preseason, when the Braves were pegged to finish sixth.
“Same [preseason] speech: preseason rankings don’t really matter,” Bradley men’s head coach Brian Wardle said. “And I say that because I’ve been through it personally. Every season I always say … it’s a new roller coaster ride, and you don’t know what’s ahead of you.”
After capturing the program’s first-ever MVC Tournament title and NCAA Tournament appearance last season, women’s head coach Andrea Gorski’s squad is expected by voters to finish behind perennial power Missouri State, Drake, Northern Iowa and Illinois State.
The Braves return just two starters from last year’s title team — one of which being Haack. The guard’s selection to the preseason all-conference first team is the second of her career.
“Name a player that’s been more consistent in her career than Gabi,” Gorski said. “It’s about the approach and how she approaches things. It’s like ‘Wow, really how much more can she improve?’ and she has. Her steadiness and ability to lead our five freshmen and three newcomers is what Bradley basketball is all about.”
Haack averaged 16.5 points per game last season, second on the Braves behind the now-transferred Lasha Petree (18 PPG).
It was an eventful week for Haack, who was also named to the preseason watchlist for the 2022 Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year Award.
Over the summer, Haack interned at the University of Florida, helping out with the football team’s training. The effects of her time around the Gators football team has been apparent.
“She’s louder; you’ve got to be loud when you’re around 100 guys,” Gorski said. “I think Gabi has always led by example more than by her voice, so I think that was one thing they challenged her [to do] down in Florida was to use her voice more. She’s louder, more confident in her message.”
Accompanying Haack on the Preseason All-MVC team was Drake’s Grace Berg, Northern Iowa’s Karli Rucker and the duo of Bryce Calip and Jasmine Franklin from Missouri State.
Calip and Franklin’s Bears were picked to finish atop the MVC and received 35 out of 40 first place votes. Drake, Northern Iowa and Illinois State were all picked to finish ahead of the Braves, who earned the fifth slot in the preseason rankings by one point above Valparaiso.
The Beacons were followed in order by Loyola, Southern Illinois, Indiana State and Evansville .
According to Gorski, preseason rankings have no effect on the Braves’ mindset, as they seek to repeat as conference champions.
“[We have] that hunger to get back again this year,” Gorski said. “You have a little taste of it and just what goes into [preparing] to do that. This has been unparalleled for us, in terms of the number of our players in the gym constantly on their own.”
On the men’s side, Bradley received 171 points in the preseason poll, 20 ahead of Valparaiso and 57 behind Southern Illinois. Drake led the way at 411 points, followed by Loyola, Northern Iowa and Missouri State. The Bulldogs picked up 29 of the 43 first-place votes with Loyola receiving eight and Northern Iowa taking home six.
Evansville narrowly topped Indiana State by one point for eighth place and Illinois State was predicted to finish last.
The Braves return two starters in Finnish junior guard Ville Tahvanainen and Dutch sophomore forward Mast, but seniors Ari Boya and Henry are primed for consistent starting roles in 2021-22.
Boya, who missed all of conference play with a foot injury last year, had 5.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg and over 1.5 blocks per game in nine starts. Henry earned MVC All-Bench team honors last year, posting 10.9 ppg and a .571 field goal percentage and averaging over 22 minutes on the court per contest.
“I think Ja’Shon, Ari, Rienk and Ville have done a great job of bringing in the new guys right away and making them feel a part of our culture,” Wardle said. “You can kind of tell that on the court.”
Joining Henry and Mast on the MVC’s preseason third team were a trio of guards; Evansville’s Shamar Givance, Southern Illinois’ Lance Jones and Loyola’s Braden Norris.
AJ Green of Northern Iowa took home the MVC Preseason Player of the Year honors as the junior guard returns from a hip injury that sidelined him for most of the 2020-21 season. Indiana State’s Tyreke Key, Drake’s Roman Penn and Missouri States’s tandem of Isiaih Mosley and Gaige Prim were also selected to the preseason first team.
The MVC men’s preseason second team was forward-heavy, with SIU’s Marcus Domask, Drake’s Shanquan Hemphill, Valparaiso’s Ben Krikke and Northern Iowa’s Austin Phyfe. Loyola guard Lucas Williamson rounded out the group.
Both the men’s and women’s teams will begin their season on Nov. 4 in an exhibition doubleheader at Carver Arena. The women will tip off at 5:30 p.m. against McKendree with the men following at 8 p.m. versus Illinois-Springfield.