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Sam’s Mid-Major Crush of the Week: The Drake Bulldogs

One undefeated team plus one wide-open conference equals a lot of fun to be had in Des Moines

NCAA Basketball: Missouri Valley Conference Tournament-Bradley vs Drake Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The amount of made baskets in Iowa’s capital is absurd and, man, is it fun. There. That’s it. That’s the story.

Well, no, it’s not, but man, let’s talk about it. Drake is, according to KenPom, the sixth-best three-point shooting team in the country. Sixth. 6. Not 16. Not 60. Not 160. 6th. As a team, the Bulldogs are shooting over 43% from behind the arc against Division I competition. Oh, and, by the way, they’re shooting 57.1% from two, for an effective field goal percentage of 59.7%, good for 10th in the country. That’s right. This team, in terms of shooting from the floor, is the 10th-best team in the country.

And they aren’t sabotaging themselves in other ways, either. They’re only turning the ball over 17.8% of the time, a top-100 mark in the country, and they’re ranked 21st in offensive rebounding percentage, at a massive 37.2%. Rebounding over one-third of your misses and getting shots to fall at that rate without shooting yourself in the foot with turnovers? That’s actually insane. Sure, they’re not exactly doing it against the toughest schedule in the country, but to be that efficient at the offensive end night-in and night-out is pretty nuts.

They play solid defense, too. While the strength of this team is clearly in their ability to get goddamn buckets, the Bulldogs are also holding teams to 43.9% effective field goal percentage. That includes being incredibly adept at denying opponents the very thing Drake is good at: shooting the three. They’re running teams off the three-point line and only allowing opponents a paltry 27% on three-point attempts. They’re giving up too many free throws, but that’s really the only blemish on the defensive end.

Drake is led by three of the most underrated, unheralded players in the country. And they deserve more recognition than they’re getting.

First: Roman Penn, the junior guard and top-15 player in the country in assist rate. He’s posting a 125 offensive rating and shooting 50% from the three point line against D-1 competition. As conference play heats up, he’s running the point for a team that looks like a legitimate challenger for the auto-bid in the Missouri Valley, especially because Northern Iowa is in some sort of way and Loyola is miserable at defending the three, which, conveniently, Drake thrives on exploiting.

Second: Shanquan Hemphill, a senior forward. If you’re at all familiar with KenPom, you’d know that beneath the individual stats, the algorithm highlights top-500 players in each particular stat and provides a ranking. There are 15 stats tracked by KenPom on an individual level and Hemphill is top 500 in the country in 10 of them. Preposterous. Even more fun? He’s taken only one three-pointer this year (and missed it). He’s dominating inside at only 6’6 and is making every one of his possessions count.

Third: DJ Wilkins, a junior guard. He’s shooting almost 55% from three on almost 50 attempts against D-1 competition. He’s also got top-25 marks in the nation in eFG% and true shooting %, just for kicks.

These three make the Bulldog offense click.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two more players, too. There’s elite rebounder/big man Darnell Brodie, who is top 55 in both offensive and defensive rebounding in the nation, and super sub Garrett Sturtz, who’s a borderline top 50 player in offensive efficiency and putting up highlighted stats with the likes of Hemphill.

One of the wild things that stood out to me looking at Drake’s stats: there’s not a player averaging over 25 minutes a game for the Bulldogs. There are six players averaging over 20 and another four averaging over 10. That’s DEPTH. Again, we can talk about how much the competition has influenced this so far, but there are so many pieces on this Bulldog team.

Two knocks on them: free throws and strength of schedule.

Point 1: The free throws. Really, this needs to be broken down into Point 1A and Point 1B. Point 1A: the Bulldogs hardly ever get to the free throw line. In 10 games, they’ve attempted 137 free throws and own a free throw rate/field goal rate (the ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts) of 23.6%, which is sub-300 nationally. In other words, Drake is only attempting one free throw for every four field goal attempts. It’s one of two things: either you’re a jump-shooting team that doesn’t draw a lot of fouls (Drake really isn’t, having a very low three-point field goal attempts to overall field goal attempts ratio) or you’re just really bad at drawing them, which seems more likely here. That’s a little bit worrisome, especially against the rather poor competition Drake has faced.

Point 1B: When they DO get to the free throw line, the Bulldogs are only shooting 69.3%. I know you’re not getting a lot of opportunities, and I know you haven’t lost yet, but at some point, there will be a game where you need to get to the line and need to convert, and Drake has yet to prove it could do either.

Point 2: THEY AIN’T PLAYED NOBODY SAM. Well, you’re right. Their best win? Sunday, Dec. 27, at Indiana State. They beat a crap Kansas State team that might be one of the three or four worst “high major” teams I’ve ever seen on the road, but man, they really haven’t played anyone. The first real test will come against Southern Illinois in Des Moines to kick off the New Year and then they get Loyola, the prohibitive favorite in the Valley, right after that, also in Des Moines. Come out of those games 3-1? Yeah, they’re real contenders and will make noise at Arch Madness. Stumble hard against the two best teams you’ll see besides Bradley in conference? Not as much.

The Bulldogs are undefeated now. Basketball is basketball, so I don’t think they’ll pull off the undefeated season, but they’ve firmly squared themselves in the discussion for being realistic Valley champions. Drake hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2008 but that could change this year.