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Elijah Childs’ return has Bradley eying another magical March run

Can the Braves topple the favorites in St. Louis again?

NCAA Basketball: Bradley at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The focus in the Missouri Valley is trained on Northern Iowa and Loyola Chicago as Arch Madness approaches, and for good reason.

The two teams’ dramatic overtime game in Chicago last weekend — ultimately won by the Ramblers — registered high on the excitement scale, and behind AJ Green and Cameron Krutwig, both teams have respective stars as they sit atop the league standings. But lurking close behind is a team that should sneak up on no one, even if that’s what they did a year ago.

With its own impact player back in the mix, third-place Bradley is poised to go to St. Louis with momentum. The Braves lost Elijah Childs in mid-December with a hand injury and with that, saw their leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker taken out of the equation. He returned for the team’s Jan. 4 trip to UNI, but re-aggravated the injury and ultimately needed surgery, putting him out for what at the time was estimated to be four to six weeks.

Dave Reynolds of the Journal Star talked to Bradley coach Brian Wardle about Childs’ mood at the time.

“Elijah was obviously disappointed this morning,” said BU coach Brian Wardle. “But his spirits have been raised because he knows he could come back this season and help our team down the stretch.”

Just over a month later, that’s precisely what’s happened.

Childs returned — or, re-returned — for the Braves’ Feb. 9 game against Evansville, and since then the reigning Missouri Valley Tournament champions have ripped off four-straight wins, tied with the Ramblers for the longest such streak in the league. The junior big man has added a boost down low, averaging 16.7 points and 9.2 rebounds over that stretch, both of which are slight upticks on his season averages.

That’s helped the Braves reassert one of their strengths, as they’ve been the Valley’s best offensive rebounding team during league play. During Childs’ absence, however, they were outrebounded in each of their four losses. That punch down low was front and center during Bradley’s overtime win over Missouri State on Wednesday, as Childs ripped down four rebounds in the extra period — in addition to two go-ahead free throws — to allow the Braves to escape with a four-point win.

With Childs seemingly healthy and playing at a high level, the Braves add another formidable entrant to an Arch Madness already packed with intrigue.

UNI’s tremendous season has the Panthers potentially eying an at-large bid even if they don’t cut down the nets, while the Ramblers, fresh off denting UNI’s resume, look dangerous with Krutwig running the show out of the post. Southern Illinois is just over a week removed from a seven-game winning streak that featured wins over both the Panthers and Ramblers, and seemingly only has room to grow with freshmen Marcus Domask and Lance Jones in key roles.

The Braves should be right in the mix, led by Childs and senior point guard Darrell Brown, who is yet again playing at an all-league level (14.7 PPG, 4.4 APG). The duo lead a team that has showed all-important balance, ranking as the league’s second-most efficient offense and fourth-most efficient defense. That’s helped them tick off plenty of accomplishments already, such as the most regular season home wins (15) since 1967-68 and first 10-win league season in over a decade. And in Childs’ absence, sophomore forward Ja’Shon Henry (9.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG) was able to feature in a slightly bigger role, potentially adding depth down the stretch.

If the Braves’ run continues, they’ll enter the Gateway City with momentum, much like they did a year ago. Bradley closed the regular season on a 6-2 run, to make amends on 3-7 start to Valley play that at one point included a five-game losing streak. Despite the good run in a league seemingly not as good at the top as it is this year, the Braves’ romp to the tournament championship was still a slight surprise.

On Wednesday, Wardle talked about that type of aspiration heading into March.

“Games this time of year are tough, our league is good,” Wardle said in an interview posted by the team following the MSU win. “A lot teams are talented and playing with a desperate mentality and so are we. We’re hungry group right now and we have to keep getting better.”

While they may not be the favorite, the return of Childs has certainly made the Braves good enough to be a contender to get back to the NCAA Tournament.