By Arnie Leshin
The Drake University men’s basketball team is right up there with the Winthrop Eagles and Citadel Bulldogs, but no where near Gonzaga, Baylor and Michigan.
These are the six remaining undefeated teams in Division I. But you won’t find the Bulldogs of Drake and Citadel or the Eagles of Winthrop in the national rankings. That currently belongs to No. 1 Gonzaga (10-0), No. 2 Baylor (9-0) and No. 6 Michigan. The other three are looking up in these times of the coronavirus pandemic, with some hope of claiming a spot among the high and mighty recognized programs, the ones who already reserve their places in the pre-season. And the most victories, 13, belong to the school from Des Moines, Iowa.
That’s Drake, which comes off a 10-16 record under third-year head coach Darian Devies, no doubt gaining recognition on its recent sweep of visiting Southern Illinois in back-to-back nights on national television. In game one, it was close until these Bulldogs went on a big run to seal this one up. The next night, it was no contest and even Dick Vitale as the TV commentator became a fan.
“Look at these guys,” said the long-time promoter of college hoops. “Excellent team play, about a dozen players deep, the guards are quick and crafty, and the big guys taking charge underneath. Undefeated they are, but not in the national rankings.”
Their schedule isn’t that impressive, but don’t blame those that piece it together, for these Bulldogs play in the Missouri Valley Conference where they have moved to the top of the heap, and then find non-conference teams to fit the slate. As athletic director Brian Hardin said at halftime on TV, “As others do, we arrange our schedule without knowing who is good, who is bad, and just play it. As for the MVC, we’ve been in it for years, are familiar with the other teams, and that’s it.”
Yup, that’s it 13-0. It plays next in back-to-back games at its Knapp Arena versus Loyola of Chicago Sunday and Monday. It has won an even dozen times in double digits, and it does have history via the eventful year of 1969 when it gained the national Final Four and lost 85-82 to No. 1 UCLA in a tough test not decided until the final buzzer.”
“I was on that team,” said Dolph Pulliam, who now beats the drums for the current team, “and this is a reminder of that. I’m not saying that we will again get that far nationally, but at least we’re making headlines, especially in the Des Moines weekly that covers the team. I remember we were skeptical about hiring Coach Devies, but he and his staff have done a masterful job, and it’s too bad we can’t put fans in the stands.”
In the conference games against Southern Illinois, the New York Knicks were off when the first night came on the tubes and former Saluki great Walt (Clyde) Frazier, who does the NBA team’s radio and TV commentary after a Hall of Fame career with the Madison Square Garden tenants, was seen getting a kick out of watching on the tubes from his home in Manhattan.
“It was great to have our kids in the spotlight,” Devies said. “And maybe if we keep winning, we will continue to get recognition, but if not, we still intend to have a big season.”
The campaign began with an 83-70 triumph at Kansas State of the power 5 Big 12. Then came a 69-53 rout of visiting South Dakota, no-contest wins over unknowns Saint Ambrose and McKendrees, a better success, 81-53, over Air Force, and also back-to-back wins over Larry Bird’s alma mater, Indiana State, which lost back then in the NCAA championship to Magic Johnson and Michigan State.
Devies returned four of his top players this year, 6-foot-2 junior guard D.J. Wilkins, 6-3 junior guard Garrett Sturtz, 6-foot junior guard Roman Penn, and 6-6 senior forward Tremain Murphy. Wilkins is averaging 16.2 points per game, 4.3 assists, and 3.0 steals. Sturtz is more of a point guard and has dished out seven assists a game, as well as handling the pressure applied by the opposition defense.
Penn is the key reserve in the backcourt and has averaged 11 points per game. Murphy is a combo guard-forward who has scrubbed the boards for nine rebounds a game, and also handling the ball when needed.
Depth they have. There’s 6-5 freshmen guard-forwards Okay Diamgouz and Bryceson Buris, 6-3 junior Connor Gholson, 6-6 senior forward Shanquan Hemphill, 6-9 up-and-coming freshman Jordan Kniecinski, 6-10 junior post Darnell Brodie, and 6-8 yearlings Nate Ferguson and Issa Samake. They have a roster that includes recruits from Arizona, New Jersey, Illinois, Iowa, Texas, Toronto Canada, and Sydney Australia.
COPID-19 has limited home attendance to 1,964. The Bulldogs have outscored the opposition, 932-669, have averaged 84.7 points per game while holding their opponents to 60.8. They have won with scoring margin of 23.9, have made 364 of 684 attempts from the field, have tossed in 108 threes for a norm of 8.3 a game, have come away with 208 assists, 109 steals, 38 blocks, and with 159 turnovers against 198 for their opponents. From the foul line, they have been very efficient by converting 191 of 225 tries, and have outrebounded foes 492-363.
As for the national polls, Drake’s strength of schedule doesn’t help, but you play what it is, you perhaps get a boast from those TV appearances, maybe the words of Dick Vitale, the interest of Walt Frazier or whatever it takes.
“Look,” said Devies, “we’re not begging to land in the national polls, we’re just intent on playing Drake ball and so far it’s been a winning one.”