When Brian Wardle became Bradley’s head coach, there were virtually no players on the roster and the passionate basketball fans in Peoria, Illinois were discouraged and wondering if basketball relevance would ever return to Carver Arena.
Wardle’s first team was the youngest in the nation and it won five games. Wardle’s second team was one of the youngest teams in the nation and it won 13 games, but Wardle was building a program one brick at a time. Now, Wardle’s Braves have produced back-to-back 20-win seasons. The former Marquette player says his building plan was informed by the children’s story, The Three Little Pigs.
“We didn’t want to build with sticks,” Wardle said. “It’s slower, but we wanted to build with bricks so that when we got there, we could stay. It’s not as flashy, but our administration believed in what we were doing.”
“When you rush and take a lot of transfers and older guys to win right away, you’re building a house with sticks and those sticks are eventually going to fall down,” he said. “We wanted to build our house with bricks and that’s with young, high-character guys that we think we can develop and build around. We can increase our talent every year. We want a house that is brick-built and won’t be blown over. It takes time to do it that way, but then you can sustain. We built it to last. Our academics are through the roof and our players are active in the community.”
On Jan. 16, the Braves were 0-5 in the Valley and were 8-10 overall. Wardle tweaked his lineup, his team started making shots they were previously missing, and they sprinted to a 12-4 finish and a Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title.
Meet the Players
Junior guard Darrell Brown is the team’s leading scorer, three-point shooter, ball-handler, and steals leader. The 5’10 point guard is a streaky offensive player. His 14.7-point scoring average does not reflect his explosiveness. After opening the Valley season with a two-point performance against Northern Iowa, the Memphis native went off for 32 against Indiana State. Counting the Valley tournament, he torched MVC opponents for six games of 20 points or more. He also had six where he failed to reach 10 points. He was a second-team all-Valley member.
Sophomore forward Elijah Childs was the Most Outstanding Player of the Valley tournament. The 6’7 lefty has solid post moves and a solid mid-range game. The Kansas City native recorded seven double-doubles on his way to a third-team all Valley season of 12.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. He was also named to the league’s Most Improved Team.
London native Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye was the clutch free-throw-making, heart-and-soul of Bradley’s Arch Madness championship game victory. He made all six of his free throws during the final two minutes of the Braves’ three-point win over Northern Iowa. His overall game (8.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists) reflects his grit and leadership.
The senior guard scored nine of his 13 points in the final 3:44 of the title game. Wardle says making those clutch free-throws isn’t just a reflection of his tenacity; it speaks to his hard work. He shot under 60 percent from the line his freshman season and made 75 percent this year.
Wardle speaks often of star role players. He wants players to see their role as important and how little things win championships or lose games. Senior Luuk van Bree is a screen-setting, shot-blocking, triple-making star role player. His defense on Loyola’s Cameron Krutwig in the Valley semifinal was game-changing.
Third-leading scorer Nate Kennell comes off the Bradley bench and shared the Valley’s Sixth Man of the Year award. He averages 9.4 points per game and makes 40 percent of his shots from distance.
Senior Luqman Lundy, junior Koch Bar and freshman Ja’Shon Henry all average 18 minutes per game, at least four points, and fill multiple gaps.
Wardle says his Braves are selfless. No one cares who scores or who gets the headlines. They’ve built their team on the bricks of doing the little things that lead to championships. When pregame introductions are made, all the players stay in one big circle. When Lautier-Ogunleye was congratulated for making those game-winning free throws, he credited his teammates for believing in him.
Wardle is a fierce competitor and his team, which also won the Cancun Challenge, emulates their leader.