The Bradley men’s basketball team is eager for the new season to arrive
After a season that didn’t quite meet expectations following back-to-back Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championships, the Bradley University men’s basketball team is looking to bounce back as the regular season tips off on Tuesday.
“It's easy to put that last year behind you,” Braves coach Brian Wardle said of a 2020-21 campaign that was altered by the COVID-19 pandemic and beset by inconsistency, injures, and an off-court incident that resulted in three players being suspended for the final six games before ultimately leaving the program.
“I mean, none of it was normal, from the very beginning when we started practice at the end of October. Not having team meals, team meetings, social distancing, two buses — none of it was normal. So, I'm just excited for these student-athletes to have a normal college experience. I mean, almost normal; we’re still not there. But they deserve it, and there was nothing normal about last season.”
The Braves, who finished with a 12-16 overall record and a 6-12 mark in conference play last year, open the new season on the road against South Dakota State, with tipoff scheduled for 8:15 p.m. Ja’Shon Henry said Bradley is ready to turn the page and grow from the challenges the team endured last season.
“We faced a lot of adversity, but I feel like every school did throughout the whole country. COVID is not something easy to deal with; it's very hard on people,” said Henry, a 6-foot-6 senior forward. “The guys that returned did a really good job of just bouncing back from that season and we’ve had a really good offseason. I think we're all just ready to go out there and compete.”
One of eight players back from a year ago, Henry is the top returning scorer after averaging 10.9 points in 21 games. He is expected to join returning starter Rienk Mast in the opening night lineup, alongside freshman guard Connor Hickman and a pair of junior college transfers in guard Terry Roberts and forward Malevy Leons.
Mast, a 6-9 sophomore forward, and 6-6 junior guard Ville Tahvanainen both averaged 8.6 points per game, while Mast added 5.8 rebounds per contest last season. Tahvanainen, who started 17 games, believes the key to team’s success is simple.
“Just playing Bradley basketball,” he said. “Practicing really hard, keeping the energy up, know, trusting each other, especially on and off the court and building that relationship with everyone. If we’re bringing that to the court, playing for each other and playing Bradley basketball, I feel like we have a chance to win every game.”
Another impact player returning for the Braves will be Ari Boya, a 7-1 senior forward who missed the final 19 games of last season with a foot injury. Wardle notes avoiding injuries will be a major factor in their success.
“We’ve got to be smart because we want to stay healthy. We’ve got guys like Ari Boya that we want to keep on the court all year because he's a difference maker,” said Wardle. “Health is always an issue for every team. You just pray that your players can stay healthy and no freak injuries will come up, especially with key guys.
“But honestly, just our back court — just taking care of the basketball, getting good shots every possession, executing on both ends of the floor, especially offensively, early on will be important. Usually as the season goes, that execution gets better in our program, and we've always played our best at the end of the year.”
Wardle said that in addition to what they will bring to the court, Henry and the other returnees will be counted on to help the team’s eight newcomers get up to speed.
“Having veterans is huge. I mean, just telling them how early they have to leave to get to Carver (Arena) is something that the veterans helped the young guys know, or what they’ve got to have in their bag to bring to Carver,” said Wardle. “Just having veteran leadership and experience is critical for all teams, and we have some good ones.
“We don't have a lot of them, but we have some very, very good ones: Ja’Shon, Reink, Ari, Ville, have been really, really good as far as guys that have been in the program over two years. So, they're going to definitely take that roll on for us. But what we've been doing is we've been blending them together throughout practices. Now, it's definitely different on game night, but I think hopefully that continuity we're trying to build in practice can carry over to game nights.”
Henry and Boya are the only seniors on a team that includes five freshmen and four sophomores. Henry said he's adjusting well to his new leadership role.
“Usually in previous years, I was more of a guy who'd like just lead by example. But we kind of spoke about it in the offseason that I have to be more of a vocal guy now that I'm a senior,” said Henry. “So I've kind of embraced that throughout the whole offseason and looking forward to having that role. I think it's a good challenge for me, and I think so far it's been going good.”
Wardle said the road opener against South Dakota State will be a tough test. Coming off a 16-7 season, the Jackrabbits are picked to win the Summit League and have almost everyone back from last year's team.
“I know they made 17 threes against us last year and beat us by four (88-84 at Carver Arena),” said Wardle. “They can really shoot it, a high IQ team, a great passing team, won their league (Summit) and they're preseason No. 1 in their league this year. So It's going to be a tough match — a doubleheader with their women's team, so we heard a sold out arena will be there. It'll be a great experience for these guys to play on the road for the first game of the year against the NCAA Tournament-type team.”
Bradley plays its home opener at 2 p.m. Saturday against Howard, then hosts Division II Missouri S&T next Tuesday before heading to the U.S. Virgin Islands to participate in the Paradise Jam tournament. Tahvanainen said he's looking forward to drawing energy from Braves fans after playing in empty arenas last year.
“It was definitely hard overall, especially mentally, not having fans and not having that same excitement. You kind of had to bring your own energy every day,” said Tahvanainen. “Obviously, all the difficulties we had as a team made everything a little worse. But definitely we learned a lot from last year; it was a good teaching point for us and it definitely got us more excited for this year.
“I'm sure it’s going to be a lot of fun,” he said. “We’ve got a great fan base here with a lot of loyal fans.”
Wardle said that while starting the season strong is important, the goal for the Braves is to get better as the year progresses.
“For this team, It's not about the results. It's just about the way we play every game,” he said. “As long as we're improving and we're playing the right way and we're playing Bradley basketball and meeting our goals as a team, that's really all I care about, because I know the talent’s there. So the results will come, but we’ve got to make sure we're focused on the details and playing the right way.”
Henry said he’s setting his expectations high in hopes that “playing the right way” will result in another extended postseason run.
“Obviously, the main goal is for us to get back to that MVC tournament, win another title, and get back to the NCAA Tournament,” said Henry. “That's the main focus and our main goal, and that's my main focus, my main goal as a senior in my last year here. I think if we remain together, and we play for each and other things like that, I think we'll put ourselves in a good position.”
Wardle said he anticipates the Braves will treat fans to “a lot of highlight plays” throughout the season, with frequent dunks and blocked shots.
“We’ve got some talented, long players that have been really fun to coach,” he said. “In practice, we've seen our highs are very high, so hopefully we can put that level of play together for long periods of time. But it is a very entertaining team, put it that way.”