Geno Ford pulls no punches when he discusses the toughness of his Bradley basketball team when he took over the program 18 months ago.
“We were the softest team I’d ever seen,” Ford said.
Fast forward to Wednesday’s game against arch-rival Illinois State. The Braves fell behind 25-9 11 minutes into the game and still trailed by eight at halftime. They finally caught the Redbirds with 15-plus minutes to play, traded body blows down the stretch and pulled out an 83-77 win.
The performance underscored the growing toughness Ford now sees in his team, which visits Omaha on Saturday to face No. 21 Creighton. Falling behind 25-9 a season ago surely would have doomed the Braves.
“Any time a year ago a defender would decide to get into one of our guys’ space, to crawl up into them, we would play scared,” Ford said. “Whenever a game started to get away from us, we had a defeated body language and a mentality of how soon can this game end.
“Now, it just has a different feel. You have to be in our huddles to see it, but anyone that has followed our program would understand what I’m saying. In the past, the first sign of adversity and we would crumble. It’s taken us a while to fight through that, and we’re still not there yet. But we’re getting better.”
Creighton coach Greg McDermott would agree with Ford. The Bradley team he now watches on tape is playing the game with more of an edge than last season’s version.
“They’re capable of playing with anyone in our league,” McDermott said. “They’re a year older, and you can see the improvement they’ve made.”
That improvement shows up in Bradley’s record. The Braves won eight games in Ford’s first season and finished last in the Missouri Valley with a 2-16 record.
The win over Illinois State improved Bradley to 13-9 and 5-5 in the Missouri Valley. The Braves’ five-win improvement over last season puts them among the national leaders in that category, and they still have a minimum of 10 games to add to that.
Walt Lemon Jr. and Dyricus Simms-Edwards give Bradley a guard tandem that are difficult to stop on offense and extremely pesky on defense. The pair started this week second nationally in combined steals per game (5.24) and rank 1-2 on the team in scoring.
Junior college transfer Tyshon Pickett is third in scoring (11.0 average) and tied for the team lead in rebounds (5.6).
“He’s added a degree of toughness to them,” McDermott said.
The key to Bradley’s fortunes, though, might be 6-foot-9 center Will Egolf. Granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after missing two seasons with knee injuries, Egolf averages 8.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
He leads the Braves in blocked shots and is tied for the team lead with 23 3-point baskets. Egolf has played in 17 of the Braves’ 22 games, missing four while serving a suspension following his arrest for possession of a non-prescription substance.
He also missed the Jan. 26 game against Wichita State after aggravating his knee injury. He came back to play 22 minutes against Illinois State, scoring nine points and grabbing five rebounds.
“When Will is available, we become a team that can space you out, a team that has a pretty good level of toughness to us and has the ability to defend,” Ford said. “When we don’t have Will available, we haven’t yet had anyone step up and fill the void his absence creates.
“We’re not as good inside without him. We’re inconsistent in scoring in the paint and in the ability to stretch the defense with a shooter.”
While Ford acknowledges his team has made strides in his second season, he knows it still has plenty of room for improvement. The Braves’ five conference victories have come against teams with losing league records. They lack a marquee win, either in the nonconference or conference portions of the season.
Bradley did play No. 1 Michigan tough before losing 74-66. The Braves battled before losing a home game to Wichita State 69-63. The rematch on last Saturday ended in a 34-point loss.
“The next step for us is to show that we’re good enough to beat good teams,” Ford said. “We’ve turned it around in terms of winning more games. Now, we have to go beat somebody good and not necessarily have our highlight of the year be that we played Wichita close at home or we played Michigan close at home.
“The last couple of years, when we played those kind of teams, we just got pasted. At least this year, we’ve been in them but we just have to find a way to get that big win.”
» Creighton officials say Saturday’s 2:05 p.m. “Pink-Out” game against the Braves is sold out. Standing room tickets will be sold beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday at the CenturyLink Center.
» Junior forward Doug McDermott is one of 12 players named to the Oscar Robertson Award midseason watch list. The award is sponsored by the United States Basketball Writers Association and goes to its player of the year.
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