PEORIA — Bradley’s best basketball this season came in the final six weeks when a 9-2 finish propelled the Braves into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.
It was an earlier six-week 2-9 stretch, though, that greatly determined the Braves’ eventual fate as a No. 15 seed and a meeting with fifth-ranked Michigan State, which ended Bradley’s season Thursday, 76-65.
“We could still be playing,” said coach Brian Wardle. “We could have beaten a lot of teams in this tournament. We’re a 15 seed and we put ourselves in that position by having a bad month. All 35 games matter. We can’t let up and give away possessions or games.”
An 85-73 defeat at IUPUI on Nov. 28 to a 69-52 home loss to Drake on Jan. 16 pushed the Braves into a NET hole from which they couldn’t escape. The slump negated the Braves’ 6-1 start, which included the Cancun Challenge championship.
But it was the finish — capped by the program’s first Missouri Valley Conference tournament title in 31 years along with a controversial free press issue between BU athletics and this reporter — that catapulted Bradley basketball into the nation’s consciousness. Apologies from Bradley ensued and everyone returned to work. And play.
For the players, throughout their successful final weeks, the focus was on togetherness.
“We tried to remain true to ourselves and maintain our identity,” said senior guard Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye. “Once we got things clicking, our confidence grew. And once our confidence grew, everybody started playing their roles even better than before. That’s what really helped.”
That identity begins with defense and rebounding. Bradley led the MVC in field-goal percentage defense (.411) and offensive rebounds (9.2), while ranking second in scoring defense (65.0) and 3-point percentage defense (.328).
Defense, rebounding and the companion toughness quality that led to eight second-half comeback wins, is what launched BU into the NCAA tournament. Bradley overcame second-half deficits in all three of its MVC tournament wins, winning the three by a total of eight points and holding Missouri State, Loyola and Northern Iowa to a combined average of 54.3 points.
“Just like in a game, it’s not how you start, but how you finish,” Wardle said. “As long as you feel you have the character and the talent, you can turn things around at any moment. It was a roller coaster ride of emotions, but I’m very proud of our maturity as a group.”
While this team will certainly miss the leadership and contributions of seniors Lautier-Oguneleye, Luuk van Bree, Luqman Lundy and Peter Hanley, a strong nucleus returns for the 2019-20 season.
The top three scorers are back — Darrell Brown, Elijah Childs and Nate Kennell — along with two more down-the-stretch rotation players — Koch Bar and Ja’Shon Henry. A pair of freshmen — guard Armon Brummett and 7-foot-1 center Ari Boya — also showed promise.
A quartet of incoming freshmen has been signed, all of them perimeter players. They include 6-foot-7 Stephan Gabriel of Veritas Prep Academy (Calif.), 6-1 Antonio Thomas of Memphis, 6-4 Ville Tahvanainen of Finland and 6-2 JaMir Price of Rock Island. Price is expected to attend prep school next year and become a 2020 freshman at Bradley. Wardle received texts from them during the NCAAs.
“They were excited,” he said. “They said, ‘Coach, let’s get back there again next year.’ "
To sustain success, Wardle said, “we wanted to get a 2019 class of playmakers that could get a year under their belts and then hand the reins to them as sophomores. All of them can shoot, pass and play-make and all have a great feel for the game. And all of them are physically strong already."
One more recruit — 6-9 forward Rienk Mast of The Netherlands — has verbally committed and is expected to sign with the Braves next month.
“We have the pieces in place for the future,” Kennell said. “Coach Wardle has the program going in the right direction.”
Depending on how this week goes during Wardle’s annual season-ending individual player meetings, more new faces may arrive if not everyone returns.
A tougher nonconference schedule for 2019-20 than this year’s slate that ranked 243rd (out of 353 Division I teams) is also in the works. Bradley is officially in the Fort Myers Tip-off field in November along with Kansas State, Northwestern and Pitt.
A home-and-home series with St. Joseph’s of the Atlantic 10 appears close to being finalized. Other high-major matchups are being sought for home and road games.
Regardless, the chance to dance made this a season to remember for the Braves.
“It was a great experience,” Wardle said. “It meant the world to our seniors. You try to tell your players, don’t take these opportunities for granted. I’ve been chasing it my whole career as a player and a coach. There is a little bit of luck that comes with it. Hopefully they took it all in and will have lifelong memories. This will be a huge offseason to build off this momentum and continue to improve.”
Lundy may have said it best as he sat contemplating this most unique season just moments after his college career ended in the Michigan State loss.
“I feel like I want to be sad but I’m not,” he said. “We’ve overcome so much.”
Dave Reynolds can be reached at 686-3210 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davereynolds2.