The Bluejays close out the regular season against Bradley on Saturday at the Qwest Center for Senior day. I remember the last time the Braves visited on Senior day two season’s ago. I had to give up my tickets at the last minute due to a family function. Turns out, I would have been able to go to the game since things finished up sooner than expected. Unfortunately I was a little too late on the ball and had to watch the game on the webcast from home instead. Cavel Witter’s 42 points and the double overtime contest was just a blip on my computer screen, but had lasting memories.
This time the game is on TV and Saturday will be another meeting with Bradley very similar to two seasons ago where these two teams are likely to play each other twice within the next week. In the game in Peoria back in January, Kirk Wessler from the Peoria Journal Star gave us some insight on the Braves and he joins us again to give us an update of where Bradley is at heading into the 2PM game.
White & Blue Review: Bradley got a huge win against Wichita State Wednesday night to now win three of their past four games and throwing in a myriad of scenarios now for the MVC Tourney. What have they been doing well over the past few games that has made them successful?
Kirk Wessler: When they win, it’s generally because they play longer stretches of good defense. Although their defense against Wichita State wasn’t particularly good, two strong defensive stands in the final 30 seconds ultimately won the game. Their defense at Indiana State was non-existent, and that’s why they lost that game. The defense against UNI was very good, and they threw tip-to-buzzer zone against Drexel, which never figured it out. But the defensive focus comes and goes, and that’s the biggest reason Bradley has been a .500 team.
WBR: With the scenarios in place, it looks likely that these two teams will be meeting again in less than a week. How hard is it for teams to turn around and play an opponent like that again in such a short period of time?
KW: Depends on the teams and how strong their mental focus is. It’s a cliche we in the media hate, but “one game at a time” is the imperative mindset. Human nature plays a role. If you beat somebody and then have to turn around and play them a few days later, your natural mindset is likely one of comfort, unless you think you got lucky or pulled an upset and are unsure of your capabilities to repeat. If you lost, and you think you should have won, the tendency is to play the rematch with a chip on your shoulder, loving the chance to get right back in their face and show you can punch. In cold, hard fact, if you can eliminate all recall of the previous encounter, it should have no bearing at all. Just go play. So mental preparation for quick rematches, I think, is paramount to any X’s and O’s.
WBR: Taylor Brown has had a lot of “situations” that has put him on the court and the then off the court. What kind of distraction does this make for the team and how is Coach Les doing handling it?
KW: It has to be a distraction. He’s arguably BU’s most talented player, but perhaps the loosest cannon. I don’t mean he’s a bad kid; I like him and find him friendly. But he needs to make better decisions and recognize how his actions affect his teammates. He’s like a lot of college kids, but being in a visible, public arena includes some sacrifice and requires a faster maturation process. It’s not totally fair, but it’s reality. We don’t know all of what has gone on behind the scenes, how many times Les has addressed each of these behavior patterns with Brown and what the responses have been, so it’s tough to say with certainty how Les well has handled this individual player. Being a coach is like being a parent of a dozen kids; they’re all different. One kid is totally compliant, another is a full-fledged rebel, and you have everything in between. Some are high maintenance and some low. You can make the case that Les has done well with Brown because he has suspended him three times, holding him accountable. Or you can make the case that if you have to suspend a kid that often, it’s time to acknowledge a bigger problem and cut him loose. Which is it? I honestly don’t know.
WBR: What does it say about the MVC where the two most veteran coaches in the league (Dana Altman and Jim Les) have had their teams struggle so much this season? Are they getting passed up by the other coaches in the league or is it something else?
KW: Well, veteran or not, we’re talking about two completely different situations. In Creighton’s case, Altman has an excellent track record: 11 consecutive 20-win seasons, with three conference championships, six tournament titles, seven NCAAs and five NITs in the last dozen years. One season now muddles around .500. One mediocre or bad season is going to pop up occasionally, even in the elite-tier programs. After 12 years like Creighton has had, one downer isn’t anything to get wired about. Bradley’s success run has been much shorter; really just the previous four. Yes, there was the Sweet 16, followed by an NIT. But the next two seasons reached 20 wins only because of the new tournaments and playing 35-or-so games. Neither of the last two teams was much over .500 in the regular season. This will be the fifth consecutive season Bradley has played in the 4-5 game in St. Louis. The Braves have been out of the conference-title race before Groundhog Day for nine straight seasons. All that said, as I alluded earlier, every program once in a while has “one of those years” where things just don’t come together on or off the court. I think both coaches are experiencing that this season. I wouldn’t put it in terms of them getting passed by other coaches.
WBR: Two seasons ago, Cavel Witter went off for 40+ points for the Bluejays at Senior Day in Omaha. Witter is a Senior this year and Bradley is once again visiting on Senior Day. How hard is it to go on the road and play at opponents on their Senior Day.
KW: It should be difficult. You figure your seniors will be amped to play their best in the final home game, and if the group is tight, they’ll want to work to send out the old guys with a win. The visiting team had better be ready to play. I think that happened here Wednesday night. Bradley was ridiculous the first 10 minutes and Wichita State came out flat. Bradley got up 19 points. Second half, though, some of the emotion dies down, and Bradley got lax on defense and especially on the boards – only seven rebounds the whole second half. Wichita played possessed, took the lead late. But BU underclassmen made some big plays in the end, particularly freshman Dyricus Simms-Edwards, who hit a big 3 to tie and played great defense on Murry on the Shocks’ final possession. And what did he say? Basically: “I wanted to make sure the seniors went out with a W.”
WBR: Who is playing the best ball for the Braves right now? Who would you want taking the last shot in a tight game?
KW: Sam Maniscalco. He was hampered early in the year by bad ankles, and he still has some problems in that regard. But he’s just tough. Tough, tough, tough. Unafraid. If I had a vote, he’s hands-down a first-team all-conference player. Truthfully, the other guy I’d want right now would be Simms-Edwards. He’s bigger and stronger than Maniscalco, and every bit as tough and fearless. Just not quite as experienced or refined yet.
WBR: If you had your choice on who Bradley could meet in the first round of the MVC Tournament, what would be your choice?
KW: Evansville, but that won’t happen, and neither will SIU or Drake, which are the best matchups. Process of elimination: I think the Braves have scary matchup problems with Illinois State and Wichita State. Those teams just pound Bradley inside, on the boards, and if the Braves aren’t shooting well, it’s a prescription for disaster. But it’s not likely they’ll wind up with either of those. So we’re down to Creighton, Indiana State and Missouri State. Les has beaten Altman only three times, and I don’t care what the matchups on the court look like, Bradley just flat struggles with the Jays. Both games against Indiana State this year have gone OT. Shouldn’t have, but did, so I don’t like that one either. Bradley and Mo State traded home blowouts. So I suppose that would be my choice, but from what I’ve heard of the odds, it’s the least likely, right?
WBR: What is your final prediction for Saturday?
KW: Like I said, Les has beaten Altman only three times in eight years and never in Omaha. Senior Day on top of that. I don’t think we’ll see history made. Creighton by 8. But remember, I was wrong the last time they played.