Bradley head coach Brian Wardle has succeeded just about everywhere he has been. Now, he's trying to restore a winning tradition in Peoria, Illinois after a five-win season in 2015-16.
Wardle was a two-time all-state player at Hinsdale Central High School (Illinois) where he set scoring and rebounding records. Then he spent his college years at Marquette, where he helped the Golden Eagles to two NIT appearances as Conference USA’s second-leading scorer and Marquette’s team captain.
After a brief professional playing career, Wardle turned to coaching. He was an assistant at both Marquette and Green Bay, before becoming the Phoenix head coach. The Green Bay flight path soared upward.
Wardle’s five years with the Phoenix were a success. After a 14-18 first season, they never finished below .500 while he was there. He earned the Horizon League’s coach of the year honors in 2014 as the Phoenix won 24 games and the conference championship. During his last two seasons, Green Bay went 48-16.
The task at Bradley may be more difficult, but Wardle knows how to build a program. He says sticking to the fundamentals are what his second year squad needs to stress.
"We’re still teaching fundamentals and building our brand," Wardle said on a recent conference call. "We have to continue to work and improve and to emphasize and stress little fundamentals so that we can get better next year."
Wardle was hired in late March 2015 and had limited time to recruit for last season, and despite that disadvantage and a 5-27 season, two Braves landed on the Missouri Valley’s all-freshman team. Bradley had one sophomore and a freshmen-dominated roster in 2015-16. Their ‘baptism by fire’ wasn’t always pretty, but the baby Braves showed potential.
Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye and Luuk van Bree were the two all-freshman team honorees, while the Braves also saw significant contributions from Ronnie Suggs and Antoine Pittman. The ‘old guy,’ sophomore Donte Thomas, rounded out the top five players in Wardle’s first year on the Hilltop.
Lautier-Ogunleye reached double figures in scoring in nine of Bradley’s last 10 games. In fact, he averaged 15 points per game in their final four contests. The 6’7 Thomas led the Braves in rebounding, but all five of those players averaged better than eight points per game.
"With our sophomores and juniors, we’re still learning," Wardle said. "The consistency of play has been emphasized every day. Everyone had some good flashes last year, where they played well, so we’re working on those basic fundamentals of building a program."
With a full year to add talent, Wardle is adding depth, size and experience. That starts with transfers, the first being Texas Tech transfer Alex Foster -- 6’8 forward who sat out last year. JoJo McGlaston is a 6’5 junior wing (Utah State), who is immediately eligible and expected to make an impact on both ends of the floor.
Along with experience, Foster and McGlaston bring an athleticism that was lacking on the court last year. Wardle prefers an uptempo style offensively and defensively. Both bring a higher degree of defensive prowess to the Braves this year, while Foster brings some much-needed size and the ability to defend three positions.
The transfers join a group of intriguing freshmen this year, including 6’10 Koch Bar, a three-star recruit according to Verbal Commits from Sudan. Darrell Brown is also a highly regarded point guard coming from the basketball hotbed of Memphis, while 6’3 Aussie Jayden Hodgson brings outstanding ball handling and decision making to the Bradley backcourt.
Bar is raw, but his size is something the Braves have lacked in recent years. He's slightly built (225 pounds), but has some true shooting skills and can protect the rim.
There were times last season when Bradley's backcourt freshmen were overmatched in the decision-making department. Brown and Hodgson can both help remedy that and will provide needed depth.
Bradley fans are passionate about their basketball and are proud of the team’s historical achievements. Those fans realize the Braves may be a year away from being a top-four Valley team, but they also know Wardle’s group will be significantly better in 2016-17.