Bright spots have been scarce for the Missouri Valley so far this season.
The Land of Lincoln trio seen as the league frontunners — Loyola University Chicago, Illinois State and Southern Illinois — each sit at 7-6 as the curtain closes on 2018. The Ramblers have underwhelmed in the face of, with the benefit of hindsight, unfair preseason expectations. Illinois State has just plain underwhelmed, while Southern Illinois has desperately missed Armon Fletcher in recent weeks.
In the background, an unlikely team has patched together the Valley’s most impressive non-conference resume. Picked second-to-last in the preseason and on its fourth head coach in three years, Drake has dashed out to a 10-2 record. And after a pair of quality wins last weekend, appears to be as in the mix as any team heading into conference play.
You can understand why there wasn’t much faith put in the Bulldogs.
First-year coach Darian DeVries had a roster overhaul on his hands, with five of the top six minute-getters from last season’s 17-win team lost to graduation. That included leading scorer and All-Valley first teamer Reed Timmer, who had spent three-straight seasons pacing the Bulldogs’ offense.
Niko Medved — who split for Colorado State after just one season — had not left the cupboard particularly full. DeVries opted for an injection of age and experience, landing graduate transfers Nick Norton (UAB) and Brady Ellingson (Iowa), as well as JuCo wings — and twin brothers — Anthony and Tremell Murphy.
The 10-2 start is the Bulldogs best in over 10 years, and has been fueled by the newcomers. While the lone returning starter, center Nick McGlynn, has been sensational (16.1 PPG, 7.4 RPG), the newcomers have played their respective roles. Norton has been one of the Valley’s best point guards (15.5 PPG, 6.5 APG), Ellingson has shone while finally getting regular minutes (10.1 PPG) and the Murphy brothers have each pitched in solid production.
Paired with freshman D.J. Wilkins — who redshirted at the same JuCo as the Murphy brothers in 2017-18 — the Bulldogs have shot and shared the ball at the one of the most efficient clips in the country this year. Their assist-heavy, dangerous offense helped dispatch Rider on Dec. 19, pushing the record to 8-2.
“I thought we shared it as well as we have all our and really moved it,” DeVries said [in a release following the game]. “Defensively we were stingy, but they [Rider] were mixing up man and zone [defenses] and getting us out of rhythm. In the second half, we responded and were unselfish in making the extra pass.”
At that point, the record was shiny, and certainly had its high points: two true road wins and wins over Boise State and resurgent Texas State. But you couldn’t be faulted for doubting its quality, with a non-competitive loss at Colorado and five wins racked up against sub-205 KenPom competition. The DeVries era had no doubt gotten off to a great start, but were the Bulldogs a paper tiger in a seemingly wide-open Valley?
Last weekend, they packed some genuine heft onto that record.
Drake’s pre-Christmas trip to the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic was fruitful. The Bulldogs eked out a three-point win against a big and streaking New Mexico State team that battered them on the glass. After a double digit lead dwindled to one in the final minute, McGlynn shrugged off a missed free throw to secure the game with a block on the Aggies’ final possession.
“Our guys competed, they were in there fighting,” DeVries said [in a release]. “New Mexico State was relentless on the glass. I told our guys, New Mexico State is going to try to out-tough you and if they do, they’ll win. I thought we made just enough of the tough plays to win and I love the effort they gave.”
By knocking off the WAC heavyweight — which had pushed Kansas to the limit just two weeks prior — Drake nabbed its best win of the year. They weren’t done. The next night, Norton (31 points) and Ellingson (25 points) carried Drake past San Diego in a double overtime win. The Toreros have been smack dab in the middle of the WCC’s surge, and are flirting with the at-large picture.
The pair of hard-fought, tight wins not only gave the Bulldogs the Las Vegas Classic title, but also a claim to two of the best wins the Valley has had this season. And it punched some legitimacy into the idea that DeVries’ debut season could be historic in Des Moines.