PEORIA, Ill. — In coach Geno Ford’s first season, Bradley lost to Wichita State by 39 and 37 points.
His Braves appear equipped to match up more evenly this season, after Ford took a year to change attitudes and toughen reluctant players.
“I like our chemistry and our commitment on the defensive end,” he said. “We’ve had some kids be a lot more committed to the group. It was really a collection of individuals who was really only used to failure.”
By mid-December, Bradley (10-4, 2-0 Missouri Valley Conference) surpassed last season’s seven-win total and by Jan. 2 matched its conference victories. It is the MVC’s early pleasant surprise, mostly because of defense that holds teams to 40.1-percent shooting and 61.1 points.
The Braves started 5-1 before losing to then-No. 3 Michigan 74-66, a loss that strongly hinted at improvement. Sunday’s game against Wichita State (13-1, 2-0) provides another chance for the Braves to show if they are capable of moving into the MVC’s upper division.
“We’re still light years away from where we need to be in comparison to the top programs in our conference,” Ford said. “I saw (WSU) early in the year and couldn’t believe they weren’t ranked in the top 25.”
Bradley’s progress can be measured with two players. Senior guard Dyricus Simms-Edwards, after a disappointing junior season, thrills Ford with his attitude change. With forward Tyshon Pickett, a transfer from Dodge City Community College, in the lineup, the Braves are no longer easy to push around.
“Defense is what matters,” Pickett said. “The team that plays the most defense wins the game.”
Simms-Edwards leads a backcourt that is expert at harassing the opposition. His 3.2 steals rank third nationally and the Braves average 11.4 steals, up from 6.4 last season. Ford expects him to be a candidate for the MVC’s defensive player of the year and all-conference honors.
“A year ago on the defensive end he was average and, at times, really struggled,” Ford said. “He has done a 180 and been totally consumed with going out on a good note.”
Pickett is a candidate for post-season honors, as well. He averages 11.6 points, fourth among MVC newcomers, and 6.7 rebounds, most of any newcomer.
“His motor runs all the time,” Ford said.
Bradley will face a team that is heating up on offense in conference play. WSU made 46.4 percent of its shots and 42.9 percent of its three-pointers in wins over Northern Iowa and Drake. In 12 non-conference games, it made 45.1 percent from the field and 31.1 percent of its threes.
Guards Demetric Williams and Malcolm Armstead combined for 49 points and 18 assists in the two wins, many coming from their drives into the lane that produce baskets or passes to open shooters.
“We’re starting to make shots, and so any time you make shots, they have to guard you,” Armstead said. “Now you can spread the floor a little more.”
WSU is growing more comfortable playing without three injured starters and the addition of a few more ball screens is helping the guards get into the lane. That helps WSU replace some of the scoring lost to Carl Hall’s broken thumb.
“Not only are we trying to run more ball screens, we’re trying to ball-screen more effectively,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “There was a time, early in the year, when we were ball-screening, but we weren’t gaining an advantage. There’s got to be some skin meeting skin. We’re screening better. We’re using screens better.”