Bradley wonders where home-court advantage is best served

Bradley coach Geno Ford likes the atmosphere created by fans at the school’s 4,200-seat on-campus arena.
Bradley coach Geno Ford likes the atmosphere created by fans at the school’s 4,200-seat on-campus arena. Courtesy photo

During Randy Smithson’s tenure as basketball coach at Wichita State, I heard him speak at the old NCAA headquarters in Kansas City. He campaigned briefly for WSU to move its games to a proposed downtown arena, which at that time needed the Shockers as a tenant.

Smithson said a new arena would help him recruit. By the late 1990s, Levitt Arena declined into a negative and the prospect of a glitzy new home appealed to Smithson.

His words made sense, especially at the time. However, new athletic director Jim Schaus saw a different path and his choice to renovate Levitt Arena into Koch Arena set the stage for 10-plus years of Shocker success. Schaus reasoned that a move downtown might help men’s basketball, but that still left the university a Levitt Arena-sized problem for offices, lockers and the other sports. He helped men’s basketball by helping every sport and Koch Arena is the perfect home for the Shockers.

The lesson of his story is that coaches don’t always take the long view and, while their input should be valued, they aren’t always the right person to make big decisions. They may or may not be around to live with the consequences.

At Bradley, coach Geno Ford is diving into the debate over where his Braves should play.

Bradley moved to a downtown arena in 1982 to escape Robertson Field House, an aging gym on campus. The move worked well because Peoria loves its Braves and they annually ranked at or near the top of the MVC attendance list. In 2010, the school built Renassaince Coliseum, a $50-million home for athletics with a 4,200-seat arena for women’s sports and a practice gym for men’s basketball.

Bradley uses the arena for a few men’s basketball games (one this season) and now Ford is pitching the idea of moving more games back on campus. It would take an expansion for seating and nobody seems sure how parking, restrooms, concessions, etc. would work.

Bradley might look at a model like Villanova or Saint John’s, where a school plays a few of its big games at a large off-campus arena and the rest on campus.

“The on-campus facility is just so much louder and more lively,” Ford said. “There is a significant difference in noise levels, in electricity, in building on campus vs. the building downtown. That’s an opinion that would be shared by my players. I think it’s something that warrants some discussion by our administration.”

Bradley is in the final year of a five-year deal with Carver Arena, part of the Peoria Civic Center, which is managed by SMG (like Intrust Bank Arena). My experience with schools that play off campus (basketball and baseball) is that often they are treated like second-class citizens, little different than the circus or the Globetrotters (although Creighton seemed to be an exception in Omaha’s civic facilities). A school pays rent and its cut of parking and concessions is minimal or nonexistent. Practice time in the facility is also a problem.

In Bradley’s case, it battles a minor-league hockey team for weekend dates and times. So perhaps this is part of a negotiating battle and Bradley can squeeze better terms out of the Civic Center.

The Braves are struggling, and Ford would play games on a Nerf Hoop in his basement if he thought it would help. Down-sizing from 11,000-seat Carver Arena to 6,000 or so on campus would appear to be a move that down-sizes Bradley’s ambition.

I started covering WSU in 2005-06 and regard Bradley as one of the best stops in the MVC, in part because the fans care and show up at Carver Arena. Attendance is declining, down to 6,608 last season after averaging 9,000-plus from 1996-2010. It strikes me as the kind of fan-base that will quickly return if the Braves can move back toward the top of the MVC and back into NIT/NCAA relevancy. Bradley last won an MVC title in 1996. It last finished above .500 in the MVC in 2009 and last finished higher than fourth in 2001. Yet it consistently ranked third in MVC attendance in recent seasons.

That isn’t a declining fan base. That is a city waiting for a good reason to return to Carver Arena, drink a few beers, eat an Avanti’s Gondola and cheer for the Braves.

You can listen to Kirk Wessler of the Peoria Journal-Star discuss the matter here.

Other items from around the Missouri Valley Conference:

▪  Missouri State’s season is already more eventful than most. Star guard Marcus Marshall, after recovering from a knee injury, missed two games with a quad strain. Ron Mvouika, after earning a starting job, is sidelined with a bulging disc and might not return until MVC play begins. Gavin Thurman has played in two games, limited by a knee problem.

Sunday, the Bears traveled to Tulsa to play Oral Roberts. A power outage postponed the game to Dec. 15.

“Marcus has been in and out and hopefully we have no more setbacks there,” coach Paul Lusk said. “We need to get him some practice time. (Ron) really had a very good preseason for us and earned that spot. He’s that next guy that can go make a play for us.”

Junior transfer Camyn Boone averages 8.0 points and 5.4 rebounds, but fouled out twice. All the upheaval hurts Missouri State’s defense.

“When he gets in foul trouble, that really affects us,” Lusk said.

▪  Evansville is 7-1 entering Saturday’s game against Murray State. Its lone loss is to Green Bay (64-62 on a neutral court). Green Bay, despite a 72-48 loss at Georgia State, is No. 1 in the RPI on Thursday and owns a 13-point win at Miami (Fla.). The best reason to feel optimism regarding the Aces is their road record (2-0) and neutral-court record (2-1).

Last season, Evansville went 3-11 on the road.

The Aces play their next five games at home.

▪  Indiana State is off to disappointing start to the post-Jake Odum era, which should also be called the post-Manny Arop and Dawon Cummings era. The Sycamores lost three starters and coach Greg Lansing didn’t back off on his schedule.

Indiana State owns losses to Illinois, Memphis and Butler, as well as Saint Louis and Ball State. The Sycamores (3-5) rank ninth in the Valley with a shooting percentage of 38.9 and 10th with a 26.5-percent accuracy on three-pointers.

“We’ve got to get a lot better,” Lansing said. “We’re a little fragile right now. We might have bitten off a little more than we can chew with this schedule, but that’s the way we like to do it.”

▪  Northern Iowa is ranked No. 23 with a 9-0 record, four wins against teams in the top 100 and a No. 21 RPI. The Panthers play at VCU on Saturday and face Iowa a week later in Des Moines.

Senior forward Marvin Singleton earned a starting job over the last month of the 2013-14 season and is keeping that pace in 2014-15. He is averaging 5.2 points and 6.6 rebounds, up from 3.4 points and 2.5 rebounds last season. His playing time has doubled.

Panthers coach Ben Jacobson said Singleton came to UNI wanting to play small forward, largely because he is 6-foot-4. He played power forward against VCU last season, for matchup reasons, and liked it. So did his coach, and Singleton found a new position. While he remains small for that position, it works for the Panthers.

“He really had to wait his turn,” Jacobson said. “He’s much better than he was a year ago. He’s completely changed his body and his conditioning and that’s helped him be much more effective.”