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The Drake Bulldogs are the Valley’s biggest surprise

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Niko Medved already has the program trending in the right direction.

NCAA Basketball: Drake at Minnesota
Niko Medved is leading a Drake revival
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Picked tenth in the Missouri Valley Conference’s preseason poll, the Drake Bulldogs are shaking up the new-look MVC.

When you talk to veteran Valley watchers, words like gritty, tenacious, hard-working, resilient and unselfish all roll off the tongues of coaches and media members. First year coach Niko Medved is transforming a team, coming off back-to-back seven-win seasons, with virtually no new players, into a relevant Valley squad.

Drake (10-7) has sprinted to four straight conference wins by playing better defense, a four-guard offense and making very few mistakes.

First the Numbers

The Bulldogs lead the Valley in scoring (78.4 points per game), free throw percentage (.776), assists (16.1 per game), three-pointers (164) and assist/turnover ratio (1.3).

Preseason all-league guard Reed Timmer is the Valley’s leader in scoring (19.4 ppg) and free throw percentage (.886).

The New Attitude

Medved is energetic, positive and relentlessly optimistic. From day-one of his hiring Medved told anyone that would listen that Drake and the upper midwest could be a hotbed for college basketball. His team has bought what he’s been selling.

Long-time play-by-play announcer Larry Cotlar (@CotmanSports) says Medved’s players have adopted Medved’s positive disposition and are thus playing harder on the defensive end. After allowing 80.1 points per league game last season, the Bulldogs are yielding just 66.2 this year.

Cotlar says the difference isn’t scheme, it’s attitude.

“They’re playing defense now,” says Cotlar. “They have bought in since day one. They really love this staff, but defense is what has really improved. It is nothing schematically, it’s just guys working harder.”

During a preseason interview, Medved warned that without a better defensive effort, the Bulldogs would keep on losing.

“This group of seniors and juniors know what the other side is like,” says Medved. “They know what’s like to go through the losing. They know how difficult it is to win. We don’t have to sell to these guys on how hard it is to be successful in this league.”

While the Bulldogs are playing better defense, they aren’t really playing a different defense. Cotlar says it’s more about desire and effort than it is about scheme and technique. They do jump into double teams more often than in the past and have tried to play a bit more of a packed in defense.

The former Furman head coach (where he was last season’s Southern Conference Coach of the Year) believes his team can compete and succeed in spite of the size disadvantage they take into each game. As one of the shortest teams in the nation, the diminutive Bulldogs resemble their name-sake mascot.

Medved seems to channel the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (represented in the media as a bulldog during his stand against Germany during World War II), as the current movie “Darkest Hour” heralds the British leader shouting ‘We will never surrender!’

The Bulldogs start one player (Nick McGlynn) over 6’3, playing a four-guard offense and yet the team is relentless in attacking the rim. Medved preaches ‘paint touches’ to his sharp shooting team. They not only lead the league in free throw percentage, but they are third in the Valley in free throws made. They force teams to defend the entire floor. Four players average double figures in scoring, and Indiana State coach Greg Lansing says Drake’s offensive unit is tough to defend.

“They are a hard match up for us,” said Lansing. “They throw four guards out there and they have five senior guards. I respect them a lot, because they hung in there. They’ve had their tail kicked and they’ve done something about it. They have a bunch of guys that can make shots and they are a veteran perimeter team that is difficult to defend and I’m not sure they’re going to slow down much.”

Cotlar, the author of The Biggest Rolodex in Sports, says Medved’s players believe they can succeed because the coach believes it.

“Niko is a very positive guy and the staff is great,” says Cotlar. “They always focus on positivity, saying ‘there’s nothing we can’t do’. He knows what they are capable of and he’s getting everything possible out of his players. Enthusiasm has a lot to do with it. He has instilled in them the ‘why not us’ mentality.”

McGlynn (10.8 points per game & 5.5 rebounds) may be the most improved Bulldog. The 6’8 Wisconsin native averaged under five points per game during his freshman season. Medved says that McGlynn’s desire to succeed and zeal in pursuing the basketball are huge, and that he is learning how to defend.

“It was very quick when I got the job, I was impressed with Nick,” said Medved. “He’s strong, he’s a good athlete, has great hands and he loves to play. One of the things he’s been able to do is playing better on defense and staying out of foul trouble. He rebounds, plays with a great motor and can finish inside. When he’s playing well and not in foul trouble, we’re clearly a better team.”

Timmer is the unquestioned leader of the squad and the four year starter is climbing numerous scoring marks in the Drake record book, but Medved has pushed the Academic All-American to also become a better play maker.

“He’s really bought into that,” shares Medved. “He needed to become a better play-maker and he has become a better defender. I think Reed’s got a really nice balance of staying aggressive and looking for his shot, but continuing to find others.”

Drake defeated Wake Forest, lost by one point at Minnesota and dropped a five point decision to Colorado. Cotlar (also the host of ‘Cotlar and Company 1350 ESPN Radio, Des Moines) says the win against Wake’s Demon Deacons caused this edition of Drake players to believe they could be a good team.

“The Wake Forest game was the turning point,” says Cotlar. “I think beating a quality ACC program really told this team, ‘hey maybe we can do some things. These guys were tired of losing.”

Nothing interrupts Medved’s optimism and his attention to what comes next. When preparing to play Valparaiso and their two seven-footers, he calmly states, ‘‘every game we go into with a size disadvantage, but we can be a tough cover on the other end, because we’re small and quick.’’

When asked about their current five game winning streak, he says ‘‘it’s a long season and I’m just focused on playing Valpo.’’

His ‘power forward’ is 6’2 senior C.J. Rivers, who happens to lead the team in rebounding at 5.6 per game. Medved sees that as an advantage, because the Cahokia, Illinois native will be quicker than his opposing team’s counterpart.

Drake’s four-guard offense has many interchangeable parts. Four of the five players in that rotation (Timmer, De’Antae McMurray, Graham Woodward and Ore Arodundade), make at leaset 40% of their shots from long distance. Three players, Timmer, McMurray and Rivers average virtually three assists per game.

Ancient English bulldogs were bred to herd and to even pin bulls. These Bulldogs have been spending the early part of the conference season pinning the bigger bulls of the Missouri Valley Conference.