Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012
By Paul Kirk
Asst. Athletic Director, Athletic Communications
It's time for "Arch Madness." Everybody is 0-0.
Drake's third-place tie at 9-9 in a much-improved Missouri Valley Conference was its second-best finish in 25 years, since it tied for second in 1985-86.
The MVC is the No. 8-ranked conference in RPI, up from No. 11 a year ago. Only two Valley teams posted better records than the Bulldogs' 9-9 mark, but by quirk of the MVC's tiebreaking procedures, Drake winds up with the No. 7 seed, and Evansville-which Drake swept-is the No. 3 seed.
Same record, swept by Drake, but four positions higher.
It turns out that the Bulldogs, who beat regular season champ Wichita State and swept No. 3-seed Evansville, had a worse combination of wins and losses versus the teams with which it tied. Drake had no "bad losses" in the conference, sweeping No. 9 and No. 10 Southern Illinois and Bradley, and splitting with No. 8 seed Indiana State.
Oddly, if the Bulldogs had suffered a "bad loss" or two, in exchange for another win or two versus Illinois State or Missouri State, they may have been as high as a No. 3 seed.
Consider this: Indiana State, which entered Saturday's action with an 8-9 record, hosted Creighton with a chance-much like everybody else in the jumbled middle of the MVC pack-to finish anywhere from third to eighth. Trailing the Bluejays by one point with seconds left on the clock, in the final game of the day, Sycamores senior guard Dwayne Lathan went up for a jump shot with significant implications for his team and several others. If it goes in, the Sycamores claim the No. 3 seed. If not, they're No. 8.
It didn't, and they're No. 8, playing on Thursday, like the Bulldogs. If the shot had fallen, Drake would have dropped to eighth. The reality is the Bulldogs, riding on a bus in Kansas, helplessly watched as the results of the other four games redirected them from a Friday tournament start to a Thursday start.
One shot, so many implications. And that was just one shot in one of five games yesterday that made up the tournament seeding puzzle.
Fair? Doesn't matter. It's the way it fell, and what is important now is to take stock of what has been accomplished, and focus on what the team does with its opportunity.
This Bulldogs team, at 16-14 overall, is poised to finish with a winning record for the second time in Mark Phelps' four years as head coach. The last time a Drake head coach had two winning seasons in his first four, his name was Maury John, easily regarded as the best Drake coach of all-time. Drake went 19 years between winning seasons before putting together three in a row by the combination of Tom Davis (2006-07), Keno Davis (2007-08) and Phelps (2008-09).
Picked to finish seventh this season in the Missouri Valley Conference, by vote of the league's coaches, the Bulldogs-starting two freshmen, a sophomore, and a power forward at center-finished with the same record as those picked fourth through sixth (UNI, Evansville and Missouri State), and a better record than the team picked third (Indiana State).
Only two teams, No. 19 AP-ranked Wichita State and 25-5 Creighton, had better conference records. Not only did Drake hand the Shockers their last loss, on Jan. 28, but the Bulldogs own a win over Iowa State, ranked 31st in the current RPI ratings.
Phelps has a career winning percentage of .472, better than any Drake coach in his first four years since Coach John. The men's basketball program had just four .500 MVC records in the last 24 years-an average of one every six years. This year's team posted one in Phelps' fourth season.
The Bulldogs are on pace to have one player, Rayvonte Rice, average more points (16.6) than any Drake player since 2001 (Luke McDonald, 17.9). Drake may wind up the first MVC team with two players (Rice and Ben Simons, 16.2) to score 16.0 or more points per game for a season since 2002-03, and the first to have two players rank in the top four in league scoring since 2003-04.
Drake won both its games against first-round opponent Bradley this season, 82-74 in Des Moines on Jan. 10, and 62-55 in Peoria on Feb. 15. There is something symbolic in seeking a fresh start and a turnaround with a game versus Bradley.
When the Braves came to Des Moines on Jan. 10, the Bulldogs had lost three games in a row, and after overcoming a 10-point first-half deficit, found themselves trailing by 10 points again in the second half. The latter deficit came with 14:44 to play in the game, and with the Bulldogs' season seemingly hanging in the balance. A loss would have dropped Drake to 1-4 in the MVC.
The Bulldogs responded with a 9-0 run to fuel a 49-point second-half and pulled out the 82-74 win. That game kick-started a four-game winning streak that put the Bulldogs right back in the thick of the Valley title hunt.
Thursday brings another opportunity to jump-start the season.
Much has been accomplished, especially with an injury-depleted lineup that has missed 6-11 junior center Seth VanDeest and 6-8 junior forward Reece Uhlenhopp the entire season. But time remains to accomplish more.
It all starts Thursday in St. Louis. Every team is 0-0.