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Sommerville, Les share memories of Bradley’s 2005-06 Sweet 16 run ahead of Hall of Fame induction

Bradley Athletics
Bradley's 2005-06 men's basketball team that reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament will be inducted into the university's Athletics Hall of Fame on Saturday.

The most accomplished Bradley University men’s basketball team of the past 35 years takes its place in the university's Athletics Hall of Fame this weekend.

Led by Peoria native Marcellus Sommerville and coached by former Braves standout Jim Les, the 2005-06 Braves finished the season on a hot streak that propelled them into the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16.

Marcellus Sommerville
Joe Deacon
Marcellus Sommerville

The team will be celebrated Saturday during Bradley's men's and women's basketball doubleheader at Carver Arena. The women face McNeese State at noon, followed by the men’s game against Southeast Missouri State at 3 p.m.

Sommerville, a former Peoria High School standout, was a Bradley senior in ’05-06 and he led the team with a scoring average of 15.7 points per game. While he says the Braves’ foundation for success was established during summer workouts, the team’s record was just 13-9 by the second week of February.

“Midseason, we weren't performing at what we expected,” said Sommerville. “We had a midseason meeting that was like a ‘come to Jesus’ moment amongst the team. We felt we were underachieving and, how do we come through that? So I felt like that was a turning point.”

What was the key takeaway from that team meeting?

“I would say us all understanding the urgency, that this thing is going to be over,” he said. “We had several different seniors that year, and just the urgency to leave a mark at the school and of course on the basketball program.”

Les, who is currently the head coach at UC Davis, agrees it took that moment of the players coming together to unlock Bradley's full potential.

“I think up until that point, we had been really inconsistent defensively yet had the characteristics and tools of being a group that could be dominant defensively,” said Les. “I think the leadership of the team – Marcellus Sommerville, Tony Bennett, Daniel Ruffin, J.J. Tauai – got together and said, ‘You know what? Enough’s enough. We're going to make our mark on the defensive end. We're not going to think about offense. We're not going to think about individual accolades, stats, points. But we're going to get after people defensively.’ They imposed their will and were dominant defensively. They were borderline the ’85 Bears.”

Jim Les
UC Davis Intercollegiate Athletics
Jim Les

A Braves victory over rival Illinois State in Normal triggered a five-game winning streak to finish the regular season. Bradley then won its first two Missouri Valley Conference Tournament games before falling to Southern Illinois in the championship.

That loss as a No. 5 seed put the Braves firmly on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament bid. How worried was Sommerville that an invitation to the big dance wouldn't be forthcoming?

“I would say extremely worried. It wasn't often that a mid-major (conference) would get an at-large bid, especially after already getting a couple (teams in the tournament),” he said.

Indeed, the Valley had three other tourney-bound teams in SIU, Wichita State and Northern Iowa. While Les says he was uneasy about Bradley's destiny being in the hands of the selection committee, some encouraging words from the MVC commissioner tempered his concerns.

“I remember talking to Doug Elgin after the loss and he was consoling us about the loss, but hearing him say he thought we were deserving of a bid gave some level of comfort,” said Les. “It didn't make that week of waiting for Selection Sunday any easier, but I did feel better that he – being in the know and knowing people on the committee and understanding what we were going up against – felt we had a good shot.”

Sure enough, when the brackets were announced, the Braves were in the field as a No. 13 seed and on their way to suburban Detroit to face 12th-ranked Kansas. Sommerville says he and his teammates couldn't contain their joy.

“I think the photo, that still photo that they have of me and Tony kind of embracing each other (and) the guys kind of standing up on chairs, it kind of shows the excitement and just overall surprise,” said Sommerville.

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Les says it was an exciting moment for the program and its fans. But more than anything, he was glad to see his players rewarded for their efforts.

“I thought they deserved the opportunity. But in life, you don't always get what you deserve,” he said. “I was really just happy that they were able to reap what they sowed with their hard work, their competitiveness. And they also made the committee look really smart when we got to the tournament.”

While Sommerville says the Braves players were calm and confident heading into their first round game, Les says preparing to face the Jayhawks was not an easy task.

“I was not feeling very good, borderline nauseous, because of how good they were and watching their last four or five games and how dominant they were (in) walking through the Big 12 and the Big 12 Tournament,” said Les. “If anything, I think the guys relaxed me and the coaching staff because they were confident in who they were and they weren't nervous.

“They were enjoying the moment and, ‘we're going to make the most of the moment.’ So that they made our job easy, to watch them from jump get after Kansas and (that) we respected them but we weren't scared of them. I think that was the biggest mindset key going into that game, and it played out throughout the game.”

Sommerville says overhearing some pregame trash talk from the Kansas side served as motivation.

“Not directed to us, but indirectly,” Sommerville said. “They were like, in passing; Pitt was coming off (the court), Kansas was right in front of us so they ran out before us, and you heard some chatter of ‘aw man, (we) can't wait to play you guys.’ They knew each other so (there’s) some of that banter. So they just kind of looked through us in a sense, and yeah it was a little added motivation.”

Sommerville’s game-high 21 points helped Bradley earn a 77-73 upset and a second-round matchup with Pittsburgh. Les says the Braves didn't bask for too long before looking ahead to the next challenge.

“The guys were really happy after the win and we celebrated with our fans, but they – I remember them walking in the locker room and, ‘that's just the start of this,’” said Les. “They did what they expected; no one else expected it. But they did what they expected to do and they were very businesslike in that locker room post the game, and already starting to talk about Pittsburgh.”

Did the Kansas win give the Braves more confidence about facing the Panthers?

“I think so, collectively as a group for sure. But I think we felt as though we could beat anybody in the country at that point in time,” said Sommerville.

Two days later, Patrick O'Bryant’s 28 points and 18 more from Sommerville helped lift the Braves to a 72-66 win over Pitt and into the Sweet 16. Les says the response from fans upon their return to Peoria was unforgettable.

“I mean, the place was nuts. I remember the airport when we pulled in, people at the hangar. Then we went to the field house, there were people there,” he said. “The town, I think they were painting Main Street; (it) had red stripes all over it. It was euphoria. It was, again, something I'll never forget how the community and the university rallied around this group of men.”

But he admits it took a while for the reality of the accomplishment to really sink in.

“I remember it wasn't until Monday morning; I was driving my son Tyler to school and we kind of had the music bumping, and he kind of just looked over and he's like, ‘Hey, Dad, we're going to the Sweet 16!’ I think that's the moment where it finally hit home,” said Les.

“You kind of felt like, ‘Hey, we got to celebrate and enjoy this moment,’ because up until that it was just it was really busy. It was hectic; a lot of demands on your time and not a real moment to just enjoy it. To have that moment with my son was something I'll never forget.”

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Before the next game against Memphis in Oakland, Bradley faced increased national media attention.

“Honestly, it was nice (but) it was too much to kind of comprehend,” said Sommerville. “Even still, to this day it’s just like, ‘hey, we really were national for Bradley athletics.’”

“One of the better moments of that whole run was with Marcellus Sommerville, who I still have a strong relationship with to this day,” said Les. “Marcellus was one of the guys that came back home to put Bradley on the map, and for him to fulfill that dream.

“I remember getting a copy of the Sports Illustrated cover sent to me as a preview, and being able to call him in my office and share that moment of him on the cover. Watching his emotional reaction and he and I both getting emotional, and sharing an embrace in my office – that's probably a moment I'll never forget also.”

Ultimately, Bradley’s season ended in the next round as Memphis claimed an 84-60 win. Sommerville says it wasn't quite the finish he expected.

“Extremely tough, because I felt like we could’ve beaten them, man. It was a battle all the way through and some shots just didn't fall for us like they did in the first two games,” said Sommerville. “It was difficult, but at the end of the day we felt like we made a good mark on college basketball that year. To be an at-large bid from a mid-major to reach the Sweet 16, I think our names are cemented in Bradley Athletics and we're pretty excited and proud of that.”

Les says the ’05-06 Braves displayed a similar makeup and competitiveness to his senior season team that finished with a 32-3 record 20 years earlier.

“Both of those teams, when you have that as your starting point, a lot of great things can be achieved,” said Les. “There are some unbelievably great Bradley basketball teams, but that (Sweet 16) group doesn't take a backseat to too many.”

Sommerville was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame individually in 2016, but he says the team honor is more rewarding.

“That's everything to me. You know, to be in as an individual is OK; I think it’s great, it's phenomenal. But my excitement for this weekend comes for the Joe Fultons, the Steven Jackson Jr.’s – you know, the managers, the trainers, those guys who are going into the Hall of Fame,” said Sommerville.

“I’m really excited for those guys and really excited for everyone. We as players, we really appreciate – and I can say that about Bradley – we really appreciated, the boys appreciated the managers (and) we appreciated the trainers taking care of us. So to be able to reward them in this way is awesome to me.”

The ’05-06 men’s basketball team will be joined by women’s golfer Bari Erais at Saturday’s enshrinement, with a banquet celebrating the honorees to follow the basketball doubleheader at Carver Arena.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.