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Bradley basketball team gears up for Arch Madness tilt with Loyola

The Bradley men's basketball team is looking to claim the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship trophy for the third time in the past four seasons this weekend in St. Louis.

But the Braves' road to an Arch Madness title begins against the defending champions, likely followed by the top seed. Still, the team remains confident heading into Friday’s quarterfinal matchup with Loyola.

Bradley coach Brian Wardle said there's no mystery surrounding what it will take for the fifth-seeded Braves to beat the Ramblers in their tourney opener.

“A very smart 40 minutes of execution,” said Wardle. “We're going to have to execute well on both sides. We’ve got to do what we do as the Bradley basketball program, but also there's a few tweaks that we’ve got to do better in this game. If we can execute that for 40 minutes and play smart and still play calm and together, I like our chance.”

The Braves and Ramblers split their two regular-season meetings, with Bradley winning at home by seven (68-61 on Feb. 9) a month after losing by that same amount (78-71 on Jan. 8) in overtime in Chicago.

Bradley junior guard Terry Roberts said those results give them confidence heading into their 2:30 p.m. quarterfinal matchup at Enterprise Center.

“Definitely, I feel like we're ready to play them. It's going to be our third time playing them, so we’ve kind of got a good feel for how they play and they’ve got a good feel for how we play,” said Roberts. “So it’s going to be a war and we're just excited to play. I can't wait.”

With Loyola set to move to the Atlantic 10 Conference next season, Friday’s game will be the last time the Braves and Ramblers play as MVC foes. Bradley leads the all-time series, 37-32, but Loyola holds a 12-6 advantage since joining the Valley in 2013, including three wins in four Arch Madness meetings.

Loyola posted a regular-season record of 22-7 this season, the best mark among Valley teams. But the Ramblers dropped to 13-5 in MVC games after an overtime loss at Northern Iowa to finish the season, falling out of first place and into the 4-5 matchup with Bradley.

Braves sophomore forward Rienk Mast said it’s an indication of the conference’s quality and parity.

“That's just shows how close the top really is,” Mast said when asked if he was surprised to be facing Loyola. “We were just ready to play whatever. As a fifth seed, we knew we were going to have a tough opponent.

“So we’ll just prepare for Loyola, and we know we can beat them because we've shown it already.”

Bradley and Loyola have each won two of the last four MVC tourney titles. The Braves also were seeded fifth in 2019 on their way to the championship, then successfully defended their crown the following year as the No. 4 seed.

Bradley finished the regular season with a record of 17-13 overall and 11-7 in Valley play, including a stretch of eight victories in 10 games between Jan. 12-Feb. 12. Mast said they know they're capable of doing better.

“I definitely feel like our record doesn't really reflect how good we are,” he said. “Well, with the season we put on display, yes, we're a fifth seed. But I mean, two years ago, we won it as a fourth or fifth seed too and the year before they won it as a fifth seed too, I believe.

“So anything is possible as long as you just put three really good games – or just let's start on Friday, put a really good game on Friday. If we do that, I think we'll like where we're at.”

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Bradley junior guard Terry Roberts drives against two Loyola defenders during their game earlier this season at Carver Arena.

Roberts, a junior college transfer, led Bradley with a scoring average of 14.4 points per game. He became the first Braves player to be named to the All-Valley first team in 11 years, while also capturing the league's Newcomer of the Year honor.

“It's very exciting to me, with my teammates congratulating me,” said Roberts. “I commend them too, because without them I wouldn't be able to do anything. So I'm just very appreciative for it.”

Wardle said Roberts has been a welcome addition, and his growth suggests even greater potential.

“It's been great having Terry. It's well deserved,” said Wardle of Roberts’ newcomer honor. “I thought he was one of the most dynamic players in the league. He suffered a tough ankle injury that slowed him up a little bit, but I think he's getting healthier right now.

“He’s just an explosive player, I'm very proud of him. I think he's come a long way from the end of his junior college season to now with the type of point guard and player he is. So I think the sky's the limit for him as the future moves forward.”

Mast averaged a team-best 13.9 points in MVC games, and led the league in rebounding with an 8.3 average. He was named to the Valley's Most Improved Team and was a third-team all-conference choice.

“I feel like that my season overall, just my Valley season, I probably deserved a little bit better. But it's still an honor to be selected with the 15 best players in the league,” said Mast.

Wardle said Mast creates difficult defensive matchups for Bradley opponents, and was indeed worthy of a higher all-Valley ranking.

“He's one of the most efficient players in the league, the fifth most efficient player in the league. So I would agree with him,” said Wardle. “But that's good. He's got a chip on his shoulder, and you’ve got to find that extra motivation this time of year.

“Rienk’s just a super-skilled guy and he's very consistent. He's one of our best defenders, he's the best rebounder in the league, and I think offensively when he gets it going –especially from three (3-point range) – he's almost impossible to guard. So I think that's what hopefully we can get this weekend.”

Wardle said the path to the Arch Madness title is always difficult, and several teams are capable of cutting down the nets and advancing to the NCAA Tournament.

“I think the top five teams in this league are all in the top 100 in the country,” he said. “So it's a very strong year for this league. I'm proud of our team with our youth and how many newcomers we've had to be able to contend in the top of this league this year. I think it's been that good of a league.

“We obviously have a great matchup with a very veteran, good Loyola team and we're going to have to be very smart, we're going to have to be physical and stay calm and stay poised throughout the tournament, especially our guys that haven't been there before.”

Facing a tourney-tested Loyola team that beat Illinois in the NCAA tourney last year, Bradley has a starting lineup of five underclassmen, with freshman Connor Hickman and juniors Ville Tahvanainen and Malevy Leons joining Mast and Roberts.

“I can't wait to see what happens because we’re still growing and jelling together, and I just feel like this is going to be something great,” said Roberts.

Barring an upset, the winner of the Bradley-Loyola quarterfinal will play No. 1 seed UNI (18-10) in Saturday's noon semifinal. The opposite side of the bracket has Missouri State (22-9) as the No. 2 seed and Drake (22-9) as the No. 3. The championship game tips off at 1 p.m. Sunday.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.