By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)
When Bradley defeated Loyola in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament back on March 9, many Chicagoans, midwesterners and casual fans of a good underdog story were probably crestfallen. No Sister Jean this tournament season? It was unfathomable. What local team could they throw their support behind now?
Loyola’s incredible run to the 2018 Final Four was the stuff screenwriters dream about. It featured a 14-game winning streak, buzzer beaters and many standout individual performances — all led, of course, by the 99-year-old nun and team chaplain. However, the Bradley Braves, who were the last team to beat Loyola before their Final Four loss to Michigan, were likely watching the Ramblers’ journey and wondering if that could have been them.
After all, Braves guard Nate Kennell said the team was searching for payback after losing to Loyola in the semis of last year’s conference tournament. So it was no fluke that Bradley secured a place in the NCAA tournament with a comeback victory over Northern Iowa. They knew they could beat the best team in the conference and showed it.
Now, Bradley is the only Illinois team in the field of 68 and, as they’re only 160 miles southwest of Chicago, it’s the Windy City’s duty to ride the Bradley bandwagon, no matter how far it goes this March.
Granted, I’m a 2010 graduate of the school so I have bias here, but there’s state pride on the line, and it was really cool to have the eyes of the sports world focused on Rogers Park for a few weeks last year. If you need any more convincing, Bradley gave me a full ride my first year of school and it’s one of two times in my life I’ve seen my moms cry. You can’t argue against emotional mothers.
So before you become a Bradley Braves fan, peep this guide of all things BU.
Things to Know
Before you jump on a March Madness bandwagon, it’s important to know some facts and trivia in case a die-hard Braves fan (such as this writer) asks you something about the program. Here are some important things to know about Bradley.
- Bradley’s varsity basketball team has competed since 1902 and has been in the Missouri Valley Conference continuously since 1955. They’ve been to the NCAA tournament nine times with two Final Four appearances in 1950 and 1954.
- The last time Bradley went to the tournament was 2006, where they were the face of a upset season of March Madness. The 13-seeded Braves upset Kansas in the first round — the second straight year Kansas lost in the first day of the tournament — and Pittsburgh to make the Sweet Sixteen, before losing to Memphis.
- Current and former NBA players who attended Bradley: Hall of Famer Chet “The Jet” Walker, Westinghouse alum Hersey Hawkins, former Naperville star (and Candace’s brother) Anthony Parker, Julian grad and current Windy City Bulls player Walt Lemon Jr.
- Bradley also has a reputation for producing sports broadcasters. Alumni include late Lakers play-by-play announcer Chick Hearn (who coined the term “slam dunk”), Clippers legend Ralph Lawler (of “The lob…the JAM!” fame), ESPN alum Charley Steiner (for whom the school’s Sports Communication center is named), Cubs great Jack Brickhouse, as well as local Chicago broadcaster Brian Bedo.
Who and What to Look For
The Braves have steadily improved under fourth-year coach Brian Wardle, but were by no means a tournament lock after the rocky start to conference play. However, a strong finish to the season and run through the MVC tournament cemented their place in the Big Dance. Here’s some of the key players who got them here.
- Wardle is a native of west suburban Clarendon Hills and graduated from Hinsdale Central before starting for four years at Marquette. He played in the D-League and CBA, then started his coaching career as an assistant at his alma mater before taking the head coaching job at Wisconsin-Green Bay. Bradley went from five wins in his first year to 20 in the last two, which he calls a “Three Little Pigs” approach to program building.
- Junior guard Darrell Brown leads the Braves in scoring (14.7), three-point shooting (44 percent), assists (3.8), steals and free throw attempts. He’s streaky and can dribble into double-teams recklessly, but has a knack for hitting a big shot. Not bad for a player listed at 5’10”.
- Sophomore forward Elijah Childs is the Braves’ main post threat. The left-hander averaged 12.2 points and just under nine rebounds per game this season. He was voted to the conference’s “Most Improved” team and was named Most Outstanding Player at the conference tournament.
- Sixth Man of the Year Nate Kennell is the third-leading scorer on the team and also shoots 40 percent on threes. He scored a season-high 19 points in the tournament semifinal win over Loyola.
- London native Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye is the prototypical glue man for the Braves. His averages (8.6/5.4/2.2) don’t jump off the page, but he contributes where needed and is the best perimeter defender on a team that was top-100 in the country in scoring defense, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and blocks.
Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye. (Photo credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
- The role players are led by seniors Luqman Lundy (who sparked the Braves’ comeback against Northern Iowa and whose dad, Curtis, is a veteran jazz musician) and Luuk van Bree, junior center Koch Bar (pronounced “kahtch”) and freshman Ja’Shon Henry.
- The official mascot for Bradley is Kaboom, an anthropomorphic gargoyle introduced by the university in 2014. Kaboom ensured the Braves one win already, as he was voted the best mascot at this year’s tournament by USA Today’s Charles Curtis.
The national spotlight will always shine on some of the dirty aspects of a program come tournament time, and Wardle has been the mean stepsister in Bradley’s Cinderella story. Although successful at Green Bay, the coach was investigated in 2013 for alleged verbal abuse of a player, and was required to take classes to change his motivational style.
This year, after Bradley won the MVC tournament, the athletics department barred local beat reporter Dave Reynolds, who had covered the team for 29 years, from a practice session, apparently as part of a season-long order to limit Reynolds access for “not promoting the brand” of the university in the past. Wardle was quoted as saying to Reynolds, “We’re going to be good someday, and I’ll remember who my friends were.”
The university lifted the ban after being excoriated by media nationwide, including Steiner, and the coach even posed for a photo with Reynolds. Nevertheless, Wardle might have ruined Bradley’s chances at being the most lovable underdog this spring.
How to Cheer for Bradley
Now, for the fun stuff. As a graduate of the university and a four-year member of the Basketball Band, I absolutely loved basketball season. It gave us the chance to bring a little Chicago flavor to central Illinois and scream creative insults at the opponent — one of my fellow low brass members used to raise his sousaphone and shout “Look at the tuba!” during opposing free throws.
Here’s a cheat sheet of how to be a proper Bradley fan at your local watch party, or in Des Moines if you were lucky enough to get tickets.
- Red sweater day: Make sure to wear something red or white to match the school colors, or a red sweater to match band direction David Vroman. (If you want to really go all out, dress up as Dr. Vroman in his John Philip Sousa costume, which he dons every spring for the Sousa tribute concert.)
- “We all we need…”: Freshman Armon Brummett supposedly used the phrase “we all we need, we all we got” as the team’s mantra this season. However! I can say that same tuba player, Zach Berg (who’s now on the staff of the Iowa City Press Citizen) was yelling this at games at least seven years prior. Either way, it’s a good slogan to shout.
- POINTS: Bradley’s streaky scoring has been a hallmark on the team and was on full display at the conference tournament. Two things we used to do in band to counteract this: the “Car Wash” clap and a hysterical scream of “POINTS!” (The first was my favorite because the cheerleaders hated it.)
- Every single college band in the country plays a version of the sports anthem “Rock and Roll, Part 2” — dum dum daaaaaaa duh daaaaaaa duh daaaaaaaaa — and Bradley’s band is no different. Just remember to yell “Go Braves!” at the end of the mini-fanfare.
- Luuk van Bree (van bray)’s first name is pronounced “Luke,” which entitles him to the “they’re not booing” chant of “LOOOOOOOOOKE” if he makes a good play. Always slightly annoying, but still worthwhile.
- My all-time favorite from my time at school was if the team got on a run, we did the unofficial Chicago footwork anthem “ayyy-ayyy-AY! ayyy-ayyy-AY!” (Technically, “ayyy-ayyy-YO,” but it hit the same.) Personally, I think it was a big surprise to some of our Chicago-born players to hear this coming from a crowd of somewhat nerdy band players.
Go Far? We’ll See
Michigan State is a tall order for any team to beat in the tournament, and they won a hard-fought Big Ten tournament final over rival Michigan. However, they’ve been in a tournament drought of late, as Tom Izzo’s team hasn’t advanced past the first weekend of play in four years. That streak featured a stunning loss to another 15-seed, when the Spartans lost to the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders in 2016.
- NCAA Tournament: Michigan St. Spartans vs. Bradley Braves — March 21, 1:45 pm (CBS)
Izzo’s squad has also dealt with injuries throughout the season, most notably to forward Kyle Ahrens, who left the title game Sunday with an ankle injury. They also have a beef with the selection committee, as Izzo felt the team should have been a No. 1 seed instead of a No. 2 seed.
All these things could spell trouble, as a motivated Spartans team could spell trouble. Michigan State plays a similar style to Bradley, with defense and three-point shooting anchoring their attack, and forwards Nick Ward (14/6.2) and Xavier Tillman (9.4/7.1) are strong and athletic. Matt McQuaid averages 43 percent on nearly five 3PA per game.
Bradley could play the bracket buster or head home early in a blowout. But in this year’s NCAA tournament, they’re Illinois’ team. So grab your red sweater and print out a copy of this cheat sheet. I’ll see you at the bar. Ayyy-ayyy-AY!
Chris Pennant covers the Chicago Bulls and basketball in general for WARR