Bob Lutz

Drake found success with Emmenecker

You remember Adam Emmenecker, the Little Engine That Could from Drake's improbable 2007-08 run to the Missouri Valley Conference basketball championship and the NCAA Tournament.

Emmenecker epitomized that memorable Bulldogs team, which went 28-5 and earned a 5-seed in the tournament, where it lost in the first round to Western Kentucky in a 101-99 overtime heartbreaker.

That Drake team became a media darling. It had been nearly 40 years since basketball fans in Des Moines had seen anything like it. The Bulldogs' 15-3 run through the Valley was their first winning conference season since 1985-86.

A gritty, tough and scary smart point guard, Emmenecker put that Drake team on his shoulders. Not that there weren't other good players, but Emmenecker was clearly the backbone. He averaged only 8.6 points, but led Drake in assists and steals and picked up 4.6 rebounds. He also shot more free throws in 2007-08 (150) than any other Drake player.

Emmenecker was so valuable that he was named the Valley's Player of the Year. And no one scoffed.

Drake visits Koch Arena tonight to face Wichita State. Three seasons seems like three eternities ago in Des Moines, where the Bulldogs have fallen back on hard times. There is hardly anything left from the championship team. The coach, Keno Davis, is at Providence. The players have scattered. Only long-time assistant coach Justin Ohl is still around.

Emmenecker, though, isn't far away. After studying finance, business and entrepreneurship at Drake, he's with the Principal Financial Group, rotating through different departments to get a feel for the company. He gave up basketball a while back, after playing a year professionally in Europe and then for a little more than a month with the Iowa Energy in the NBA Development League.

"After my first season overseas, I was looking for something else and really didn't find a situation that worked,'' Emmenecker said. "So I tried the D League, which didn't really work out. I took some time off and figured it was time to take the next step.''

Emmenecker was the Valley's version of John Stockton and Steve Nash. He was far from the most gifted player, but what he lacked in skill he made up for in grit and determination. His teammates flourished because of him and Drake came out of nowhere to become nationally prominent.

Emmenecker still gets recognized often when he's out in public, but as much of that has to do with a recent edition of the Travel Channel's "Man vs. Food" show than with his basketball accomplishments.

The Travel Channel highlighted the Emmenecker Sandwich, which is served at Jethro's BBQ, located near Drake.

The sandwich consists of a pork tenderloin, an angus steak burger, slabs of brisket, bacon, fried cheese, buffalo chicken tenders, melted cheddar cheese and white cheddar sauce. In the segment, host Adam Richman attempted — and failed — to eat the sandwich in less than 15 minutes.

"That show brought a lot more spotlight to our Drake team and to Des Moines,'' Emmenecker said. "It was pretty exciting and really good for the town.''

Drake basketball, though, has not been able to sustain the success of the Bulldogs' NCAA Tournament team. A season later, Drake slipped to 7-11 in the Valley, the same record it had last season. So far this season, the Bulldogs are 1-1 in the MVC and 6-7 overall.

Emmenecker goes to as many home games as he can.

"Anytime you're at a school like Drake, with its academic standards, you're looking for a very particular type of player and person,'' Emmenecker said. "It's difficult. That's not to say it can't be done, but there are probably going to be swings.''

Emmenecker said he likes some of the young players on Drake's roster, and that the coach who took over for Davis when he left for Providence after the 2007-08 season, Mark Phelps, is finding his way.

"This team has way more talented players than our team did,'' Emmenecker said. "The problem with that is that most of them are sophomores and younger. As a coach, that's a battle. I think it has been a learning experience for everybody and then you combine that with a little bit of bad luck and it's really tough. They're certainly going in the right direction. The right players are there.''

Emmenecker's sister lives in Providence, so he still keeps in touch with Davis, who has the Friars at 11-4 in the rugged Big East after close losses to Syracuse and St. John's.

"The thing about Coach Davis is that he delegated so well,'' Emmenecker said. "He looked at us and knew, for the most part, that we were pretty smart people and that if we made a mistake he didn't have to yell at us because we were going to yell at each other. He always told us that until he said a shot was bad to not worry about it. If we were open, we let it go.''

It was such a fun team to watch. After a pretty fast start, people expected Drake to collapse. Instead, the Bulldogs won 21 games in a row and were the talk of college hoops.

The Drake team that will be on the floor tonight at Koch Arena is not the same. The Bulldogs are waiting for another miracle.