After surviving the storm, Bradley hopes to carry momentum into 'Arch Madness'
Court storms are relatively rare in Peoria, which made last Sunday's event especially memorable.
In front of the largest crowd at Carver Arena since 2012, Bradley clinched its first Missouri Valley Conference regular season title since 1996 by beating Drake 73-61.
Naturally, it ended with a massive celebration.
"It was exciting, because I took over Bradley in 2015 and, as we know, in the last decade or so, crowds have dropped in sports in general," Bradley coach Brian Wardle said. "To see the sellout finally at Bradley, to feel that. We've heard a lot of stories about (the old) days. It was a heck of an atmosphere."
Bradley (23-8) has won 10 straight games behind a veteran squad, led by 6-foot-9 Netherlands native Rienk Mast, the team leader with 14 points and 8 rebounds. After storming the court Sunday, fans chanted "one more year" in his direction.
"These fans, once we had two scores in a row it was crazy," Mast told the Peoria Journal-Star. "We were trying to talk on defense and couldn't hear anything. That crowd was just feeding us."
Bradley is hoping to carry that momentum into this week's conference tournament in St. Louis, where it will be the No. 1 seed. The Braves will face the winner of Northern Iowa vs. Illinois State at noon Friday.
Over the last decade or so, success in the MVC led schools to launch themselves elsewhere. Creighton left for the Big East, Wichita State went to the AAC and, after winning the last two MVC tourneys, Loyola joined the Atlantic 10.
But the Missouri Valley is having a record-breaking year. For the first time, the league has five 20-win teams heading into the conference tournament.
That includes Southern Illinois (22-9), the No. 3 seed. The Salukis will get the winner of UIC vs. Missouri State at 8:30 p.m. Friday. No. 4 Belmont and No. 5 Indiana State are also 20-game winners.
SIU has already posted its best record since 2006-07, the last time it made the NCAA Tournament. The Salukis are led by Marcus Domask, a 6-6 senior from Waupun, Wis., and 6-1 senior Lance Jones, from Evanston.
UIC is making its first appearance at "Arch Madness," though third-year coach Luke Yaklich has experience with the event from his days as an assistant at Illinois State. The Flames went 4-16 in their first trip through the league.
Illinois State went 11-20 under first-year head coach Ryan Pedon, a former assistant at Ohio State and Illinois. Bolingbrook native Darius Burford, a transfer from Elon, led the Redbirds in scoring and assists this season.
No. 9 seed Illinois State and No. 8 UNI will tip off the tournament at noon Thursday. No. 11 UIC and No. 6 Missouri State play the nightcap at 8:30.
Missouri Valley teams have done some damage, going 12-3 in first-round NCAA Tournament games since 2012.
Bradley has won the MVC tourney twice under Wardle, the former Hinsdale Central star, in 2019 and '20. The Braves won the 2020 event a few days before the sports world was shut down by the pandemic.
"It's that time of year. It's March," Wardle said this week. "If you want to get to that NCAA Tournament and feel holding that trophy up at the end of this tournament, you've got to lock in to improving this week."