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You should be taking Drake seriously

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The Bulldogs shrugged off a long COVID layoff and big first-half deficit to stay unbeaten. Will they ever lose?

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

Game pressure isn’t something Drake has really felt all season.

In no small part because the Bulldogs have generally bludgeoned teams en route to one of the few unbeaten records left in the country. It’s also not something the team felt for the bulk of January by default, as they dealt with a COVID-related pause and saw a slew of games postponed between Jan. 4 and when they finally retook the court against Missouri State on Tuesday night.

But as Darian DeVries flying team retook the court, game pressure was there to greet them in what is becoming a remarkable, school-record campaign.

The Bulldogs trailed by as many 17 points on Tuesday night, as their typically-stout defense allowed MSU to shoot 60 percent in the first half. The deficit sat at 15 points at halftime, with the unbeaten season seemingly hanging by a thread.

DeVries talked about the opening blitz in a release.

“We had a first half that wasn’t ideal for us, and we knew it,” DeVries said. “Our challenge in the second half was to get back to playing with what had gotten us to this point. Our guys came out in the second half, especially defensively, with a gritty, tough effort.”

But the team with its implausibly sparkling 20-plus average margin of victory showed up in force in the second half. The defense hounded the Bears into a 6-for-29 showing from the field, while junior point guard Roman Penn (20 points, 15 in the second half) helped turn a sluggish start into yet another win, Drake’s 14th in a row. It was a performance reminiscent of the Penn-led upset of Northern Iowa in last year’s Arch Madness semis, and included big shots like the below.

There’s not much more to be said about the tools this Drake team brings to the table. Sam did a great job going in-depth on the Bulldogs in his final Crush of 2020, and it’s well worth a read because it’s still true. Drake has been brutally effective from the three-point line, are balanced on both sides of the ball and have a deep team led by a core nucleus of Penn, well-rounded forward Shanquan Hemphill and sharp-shooting guard D.J. Wilks.

But with the implosion at Kansas State — where Drake won to open the year — the worry had been that Drake’s impressive record was filled with empty calories.

The immediate rematch with MSU Wednesday may well lead to their first loss, but even if that does happen, the win Tuesday night nonetheless will have done its part in helping ease that “you ain’t played anyone” narrative on the Bulldogs. Are the Bears a world beater? Surely not, as MSU was picked sixth in the Valley’s preseason poll and dealt with a rash of COVID cancellations to not take the floor until mid December.

But Dana Ford’s team had racked up a 9-1 (5-1) record entering the game against Drake, with a solid non-conference win against Little Rock. The Bears also feature one of the Valley’s most dynamic scorers in sophomore wing Isiaih Mosley and hardest players to cover in the post in Gaige Prim.

It all led to Drake’s first Quad 1 win of the season, made all the more impressive by the context that surrounded it. DeVries is likely very pleased his team was able to handle the layoff, and added adversity of an early deficit, to keep its streak rolling. There’s also the mirco-context of Seton Hall transfer center Darnell Brodie (16 points, 15 rebounds) having his best game of the season while on the floor with Prim, who himself had an impressive double-double (18 points, 16 rebounds) that Drake was able to overcome.

One January night in the Ozarks doesn’t crown a Valley champion, or likely move the needle that much on an increasingly intriguing at-large case. But it was an impressive night for the Bulldogs nonetheless, and kept intact one of the country’s best mid-major storylines.