Peoria, IL – It isn’t often that two mid-major schools hook up in a conference game in January each with a December tournament championship on its resume, but that was the case on Wednesday night when the Drake Bulldogs traveled to Peoria, Illinois to take on the Bradley Braves in a Missouri Valley game. Drake imposed its defensive will on Bradley in the first half in jumping out to a 33-15 halftime lead and maintained a double-digit lead throughout the second half in defeating the Braves 69-52.
As he as done all season for Drake, senior big Nick McGlynn led the Bulldogs with a double-double of 19 points and 11 rebounds. Connecting on 54 percent of his field goal attempts entering the game, McGlynn was his usual, highly-efficient self against Bradley making 8-of-11 field goal attempts. McGlynn is a rim-runner who doesn’t run the floor as much as he sprints it. He scores primarily in the paint and made Bradley pay for not sending a secondary defender at him when he caught the ball on the low block. A right-hand dominant player, McGlynn backed down his defender and scored four times with his left hand. In addition to putting up team-leading scoring and rebounding numbers, McGlynn is the only four-year player on the Drake roster and plays with a high level of energy and basketball smarts.
“The first half for us kind of set the tone defensively,” said first-year Drake Coach Darian DeVries. “To get out in transition is a lot easier running off turnovers and missed shots.” DeVries came to Drake from Creighton, where he had spent the past 17 years as an assistant first to Dana Altman and then Greg McDermott, coaches with reputations for running fast-paced, high-octane offenses. Drake entered the game leading the Missouri Valley with a 79.2 ppg average, and while Bradley did hold the Bulldogs to ten points below their average, Drake flashed a running game that looked first for McGlynn in the paint and second to long range shooters like Brady Ellingson and D.J. Wilson behind the three-point arc below the break. Asked after the game if it was fair to say he runs an offense similar to the Creighton offense, DeVries smiled and said, “We brought most of our offensive philosophy here from what we did there. This is more of a grinding, half-court league (than the Big East Conference that Creighton plays in), but it’s a fun way to play and we’ll keep trying to do it.”
McGlynn played his high school basketball in the state of Wisconsin. So did Ellingson, a graduate senior who scored 15 points by making 5-of-9 shots from distance, the only shots he attempted. Ellingson was mostly a rotational player at Iowa for three years and choose to use his fourth year of eligibility to join DeVries at Drake. Ellingson is low-mistake player who is hard to hurry and knows how to find space for himself behind the arc. He shoots mostly off the catch, but he can also dribble into shot from distance as he did in the first half against Bradley. He’s adept at using shot fakes to entice hard closeouts that leaves his defenders off balance and provides him with a clean look at the basket. A starter since game one of the season, Ellingson went off for a season and career high 25 points when Drake defeated San Diego to win the Las Vegas Classic on December 23. Ellingson, McGlynn and Wilkins are the only Bulldogs to score in double figures in each of Drake’s six conference games.
Drake ran off 11 non-conference wins in November and December, the most in school history. Picked to finish ninth or tenth in most of the preseason polls, Drake entered conference play playing at a high level and hopeful for an upper division finish. But its conference hopes suffered a major blow in the first half of its first conference game against Evansville on January 2 when fifth-year senior guard Nick Norton tore an ACL in his knee and was lost for the season. A graduate transfer from Alabama-Birmingham, Norton posted a triple-double against North Dakota State on December 1 and scored 31 points against San Diego to win the MVP award of the Las Vegas Classic. “It’s a shame he’s not able to play any more,” said DeVries. “He meant so much to us. We had three scholarship players when I got here, and he was the first (new) guy to commit to us.”
The loss kept Bradley winless in conference play. Picked to finish in the upper half of the Missouri Valley in most preseason polls, and even named as a sleeper to contend for the title by one publication, Bradley got off to an impressive start on the season defeating two power conference schools in Southern Methodist of the American Athletic Conference and Penn State of the Big Ten to win the Cancun Challenge in December. But those days must seem a long way off to Bradley Coach Brian Wardle who had to suffer through his team’s fifth straight loss to start Missouri Valley play.
A three-point wing jump shot by Luqman Lundy staked Bradley to a 3-0 lead, but points were hard to come by for the Braves for the rest of the half. Darrell Brown, a powerfully built 5-10 junior guard out of Memphis, Tennessee, brought a Bradley-high 15.1 ppg scoring average into the game. But he misfired on three shots from distance, three other shots from inside the arc and went scoreless in the first half. Brown knocked down a three-point shot in the second half, but he finished with six points on 2-for-15 shooting. “He’s (Brown) a guy who can get you 30 points on a given night, so absolutely, he was a priority for us defensively,” said DeVries.
Bradley was led in scoring and rebounding by Elijah Childs, a 6-7 sophomore with broad, muscular shoulders out of Kansas City, Missouri. Childs is a back-to-the-basket big and left-hand dominant player who likes to turn over his right shoulder out of post-ups to score. Childs recorded a double-double against Drake with 15 points and 13 rebounds, but he labored through a 3-for-11 shooting first half when Bradley was in dire need of points and struggling to stay attached to Drake. “We kept shooting good shots, but we just weren’t hitting them,” said Childs.
Bradley would have benefited from a guard or wing who could knock the midrange jump shot with consistency to loosen up the Drake defense. Someone like a younger version of Wardle, who played four years at Marquette and led the Golden Eagles to two appearances in the NIT. An accomplished scorer in the midrange, Wardle averaged over 18 ppg in his senior season to win second team, All-Conference USA honors.
But after watching his team score only 52 points and never getting within striking range of Drake after the halfway point of the first half, Wardle was searching for answers after the game. “We’re in a weird place,” said Wardle. “I’ve never been here as a coach, so I’m learning. We were tough tonight, we were competing, but we just couldn’t get over the hump. Our guys do work and we’ve tried a lot of different strategies (to jump start the offense.) But we’ve got guys I don’t even recognize out there.
“The last ten minutes of the first half changed the whole game. We can’t let our offense affect our defense, and that happened tonight. We can’t let frustrations get into our heads and just have to get on to the next play. I’ve exhausted all routes, but there’s still more to do and we’ll figure it out. If we can get one (win), hopefully that will help us find our swagger again. That’s sports. The thing is you are going to go through struggles, but the last thing you can do is stop showing up and doing work. Hard work has always paid off for me. We’ll keep pushing.”
Both schools return to action on January 20. Bradley heads to Southern Illinois in search of its first conference win and Drake looks to even its conference mark at 3-3 when it entertains Missouri State.