Our ninth MVCfans.com pre-conference season Q&A is with Kirk Wessler of the Peoria Journal Star. Kirk writes columns on Bradley and MVC hoops that appear on bradleyhoops.com and pjstar.com. He also participates on the message board forum at bradleyhoops.com.
His blog can be viewed at: Captain's Blog
Bradley played a "guarantee" game earlier this year against Duke. What
were your initial thoughts to Bradley taking the game? Do you think most
fans were in favor of it orwere they concerned about the perception of playing such
a game without a return visit to Peoria? Do you expect Bradley will play similar games
in the future
A. I liked the game. I think Bradley fans were about as close to unanimous as you can get in favor of playing the game. They understand Duke just doesn’t play non-conference true road games, except in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. There are a handful of programs that I wouldn’t hesitate to take the no-return: Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas for sure – and probably UCLA and Indiana. The first four are the top four all-time in wins, by a big margin; the other two are in the top 11. And those six are the only programs to have won three or more NCAA championships. They’ve earned the prestige, with championship program that span several decades, to say, “You come to us.” Nobody else is close, I don’t believe. Those places, you don’t worry about perception. Anyone else, I would want a return at some point – two-for-one, maybe three-for-one in a couple of cases. Unfortunately, those are harder and harder to get. Nobody wants to go on the road. It’s ridiculous. I understand the economics, but this money-grab, fear-of-losing dodge is not good for the game, and the game is what everyone should put first. As for Bradley playing similar games in the future, yeah, I think they would – very selectively, in the right situations. When this game was scheduled, it was a good idea. It fit Duke’s desires for a solid, veteran mid-major opponent. It fit Bradley’s interest in giving a veteran team a tough challenge in a great environment. Unfortunately, BU lost three starters before the game was played. So the competitive aspect of it changed dramatically.
The Braves sustained two significant losses in the preseason and
non-conference part of their schedule. Taylor Brown was lost for medical
reasons and Sam Maniscalco sustained an injury that will cost him the
remainder of this season. How has the team dealth with this adversity and
what you can tell us about the status of the young men and what the future
holds for them?
A. Taylor was shut down from all physical activity for three months, after which he will be re-evaluated. You hope and pray he’ll get to play again, because he’s a young man who wants and needs to be physically active, even if he weren’t a competitive athlete. But you don’t mess around with a guy’s heart. I’m not a medical expert, but from what I understand, his chances to return next year might be pretty good. Then again, you never know. We’ll know more by late season. Sammy has had problems with his ankles most of his career here. The good news for him is that he recently saw a specialist who, I’m told, reassured him that with the right treatment and rehab, he should enjoy a full recovery and be better than ever by next season.
I think, for the most part, the team has reacted very well to all of this. They had a stinker game against Eastern Illinois. Otherwise, take out the blowout at Duke and they’ve been competitive. They took advantage of an 11-day break over finals and re-tooled the offense; got people more accustomed to new roles, etc. That’s a heck of a blow to lose your most talented player (Brown) on the eve of the season, then your returning all-conference point guard (Maniscalco) after a half-dozen games. Suddenly, Andrew Warren goes from being one-third of a serious triple-option scoring threat to being the focal point of every opponent’s defense. The only other proven scorer BU has is Dodie Dunson.
What encourages me is that, except for that Eastern game, the Braves generally have improved game to game. Their attention to defensive fundamentals is better than I’ve seen it in years. They’re going to need that more than ever to give themselves chances to win games, because they just won’t have the offense to overpower anybody. Warren seems to have accepted the leadership role, too. I respected his game at Duke, which just shut him down. Instead of forcing anything, he accepted that, and tried to do everything he could to open up teammates. He played hard the whole game; got uncharacteristically physical. I think he grew from that experience, and it showed in his performance last week, which got him Valley POW honors.
Coach Jim Les was considered by many to be on the "hot seat" before
this year began. Did you hold that opinion and do you believe that the
aforementioned personnel losses will help or hurt his chances to return
for next year?
A. I seriously don’t know how hot his seat is, although it’s certainly running a fever. His three most obvious trouble spots are: 1) In eight seasons, he hasn’t finished higher than fourth in the MVC, and the Braves have been out of the Valley race by Feb. 1 each of those seasons; 2) Season-ticket sales have taken a hit, and there are more no-shows among the sold seats; similar to the kind of drops we saw in the final years of the Stan Albeck and Jim Molinari eras; 3) Les got off to a bad start with the new president over disciplinary issues and dug himself a hole. That was three years ago, and while he has scored some points, the program has experienced more off-court drama than either the president or the new AD (hired one year ago) want to see.
Some people believe the injuries earn him a pass this year; figure he can’t be expected to improve on those mid-pack finishes without his two best players, so give him another chance next year. The other line of speculation is that the injuries expose a thin bench and proves Les’s recruiting hasn’t been all it was cracked up to be. I think the injuries are “revenue neutral,” if you will, when it comes to determining Les’s future. I don’t see how Bradley wins the Valley without Brown and Maniscalco, but the Braves weren’t favored to win it with those guys healthy. On the court, I think what his bosses want to see is a definitive sign that the program is on track to compete for conference championships. When the season is over, are the pieces in place for that to happen next year with a fully healthy team, or are they looking at a transition to the next group and a rebuilding project? A lot of evaluation will go into that, and it’s not easy to quantify. It’s rightfully subjective.
My problem with Bradley’s on-court performance for most of Jim’s tenure has been a lack of attention to defense and rebounding. There has been a lot of talk, but, with the exception of the 2005-06 season and most of the 2006-07 season, not much to back it up. Same goes for accountability: Lots of talk, not much action: Guys get threatened with loss of playing time, but never get docked minutes. The result is Bradley’s teams have underachieved, especially in the MVC, for most of the past eight seasons. Another result is not protecting the home court; they lose multiple Valley home games every year. And I say that being fully aware that Bradley has lost more key players to injury – season-ending injuries or ailments that take a player out for a month or more -- than any other league team during that time. I don’t expect the won-lost record to be sustained when those things happen, but the team shouldn’t fall apart. Effort and fundamentals should be consistent. Your best players are hurt? Sorry. I still expect the healthy guys to be playing their arses off, leaving their hearts on the floor, every second, every night. I expect to see them improve, even if that improvement doesn’t always pay off with wins. But how do you quantify that? You can’t. Not completely. It’s in the eye of the beholder.
I’m just relating what I see and putting it in the context of having covered college basketball for 33 years. I can’t speak for the president or the AD. But I’ll say this: If the current Bradley team scraps, overachieves its talent ceiling and thin bench, makes it hell on opponents to score ... some of these fans who are on the fence with Les will embrace this team and jump into his yard and say, “Keep him.”
Senior Andrew Warren has scored 20 or more points in seven of the
Braves' eleven games thus far. How heavily will Jim Les lean on him
during the conference season? Similarly, Dodie Dunson has assumed the
point guard responsibilities in Maniscalco's absence and has played almost
35 minutes per game. What is his greatest strength and what does he lack
that Maniscalco might have provided?
A. Warren is the go-to guy. Has to be. Of the remaining players, he has the best outside shot. He has the size on the perimeter to take his man inside and create a mismatch. Thing is, everybody will key every defense to stop him. Other guys have to step up. Bradley has to develop a post game, which it hasn’t had since Zach Andrews in ’06-07. It needs other guys to be smart and efficient with their offense. Nobody has to be great, but the Braves need a lot of guys to be smart and precise with their execution, so they can punish the extra attention given Warren.
Dunson has been really solid at the point. He played there some for Iowa State as a freshman. He’s not a classic point guard, but he’s fundamentally solid, and he’s strong with the ball and a tough kid. He’ll play better defense than Maniscalco, because he plays as hard as Sammy and is more athletic; quicker laterally and better able to recover if he gets beat with the first step. He’s also a vocal leader and a fifth-year senior. What he lacks is Sammy’s 3-point ability. Dodie can hit 3s, but he’s much streakier, and it’s not what he’s best at. And he’s not a mortal lock to make his free throws. Sammy is terrific at drawing fouls in the guts of the game, and he just doesn’t miss his throws.
Most predictions placed the Braves between 3rd-6th in the MVC when the
season began. What would you say are reasonable expectations for Bradley
A. I think most observers around the league have just accepted that’s the range in which Jim Les teams will finish. If you think they’re capable of winning the title, you remember the years when they found ways to play their way out of the race. If you think there’s no way they can avoid being a play-in team at the tournament, you remember how they finished fourth in a similar situation. So, given history, yeah, that’s reasonable. Or at least, it was reasonable before the season. Now ... it still might be reasonable. I don’t think there’s any way they can win this league. It’s certainly unreasonable to expect them to win the title. I didn’t think they’d win it fully healthy.
But everything else is in play. Strange things happen. It’s possible they just can’t hold up to the grind and wind up in the bottom four. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, to see this team go .500 in the league. I wouldn’t be shocked if they found a way to win 10 or 11 in the MVC. Some of that is because the league is down. But here’s what I like so far:
I believe Les truly had an epiphany about defense after last season. I’ve written about this; you can search my columns on bradleyhoops.com and pjstar.com to get the full story. As I said before, the improvement is significant. I like the way this team came out of the finals break. There’s an attitude with this group that has been missing for a while; it seems to be developing a fighter’s mentality, not just with one or two guys, but with the group. The various individuals don’t seem at cross-purposes. Maybe I’m nuts. We’ll see.
Thanks again to Kirk for participating in our team by team MVC Q&A. Previous Q&A's can be found in the MVC links section of the forum.
Dec 13 - Drake Bulldogs - Mark Emmert
Dec 16 - Jim Benson - Illinois State
Dec 18 - Paul Suellentrop - Wichita State
Dec 20 - Steve Pivovar - Creighton
Dec 22 - Kelly Beaton - Northern Iowa
Dec 24 - Todd Hefferman - Southern Illinois
Dec 26 - Randy Beard - Evansville
Dec 27 - Todd Golden - Indiana State
Dec 29 - Kirk Wessler - Bradley
Dec 31 - Lyndal Scranton - Missouri State