Lutz Blog

Bob Lutz: Bradley basketball stuck in mediocrity, or worse

Bradley has played its home games in downtown Peoria, at Carver Arena, since 1982.
Bradley has played its home games in downtown Peoria, at Carver Arena, since 1982.

From 1950 through 1955, Bradley played in three NCAA tournaments and made it to the national championship game twice.

Players like Paul Unruh, Gene Melchiorre and Bob Carney were instrumental in the Braves’ success in those days. But Bradley was an independent for two of those NCAA tourney appearances, having dropped out of the Missouri Valley Conference for four seasons from 1951-52 through 1954-55 before returning in 1955-56.

Bradley, which has belonged to the MVC since, has made only five NCAA Tournament appearances, and won only two tournament games, since 1955. It’s getting harder and harder for the Braves to hang their hats on ancient history.

Bradley looks to be headed for another losing season in 2014-15, which would be its fourth in the past five seasons. The Braves haven’t won an MVC championship in 19 seasons or a MVC tournament title since 1988.

Next to Wichita State’s fan base, Bradley’s is the most passionate in the Missouri Valley. But there’s a thin line between passion and apathy and the Braves, 1-1 in the MVC and 6-9 overall going into Wednesday night’s game against Wichita State at Koch Arena, are not giving their backers much reason to back.

There was a glimmer of hope in 2006 when a Bradley team that barely got into the NCAA Tournament managed to win two games, knocking off Kansas and Pittsburgh. The 1985-86 Braves, led by the dynamic Hersey Hawkins, beat UTEP in the NCAAs.

And that’s about it. Bradley, which went 24 seasons from 1956-79 without reaching the NCAA Tournament, is a non-factor. Since 2000-01, when the Braves were 12-6 in the Missouri Valley, they are 96-140 in conference games.

Basketball fans in Peoria, a hotbed of high school hoops, are dying to get back on board. But Bradley keeps shoving them away.

It’s gotten so bad, and so strange, that earlier this season Bradley’s coach, Gene Ford, made a push for moving the Braves’ home games. He suggested Carver Arena, a downtown facility with a seating capacity of more than 11,000, was not the place for Bradley and that the Braves should move games to Renaissance Coliseum, which was built on campus for $50 million in 2010, seats 4,200 and is currently used for men’s basketball practices and women’s sports.

Presumably, the addition of a couple of thousand seats would take place before such a move. Still, Ford’s suggestion, which has remained just that – a suggestion – sent conflicting signals.

Carver Arena is no palace. The Braves moved there from old Robertson Fieldhouse in 1982 and packed the place for years. It was the venue where Peorians wanted to be seen. Carver, though, is far beyond its prime and last season the Braves averaged just 6,608 fans for home games.

A popular stance through the years has been that the Valley can’t be a strong basketball conference without Bradley making a significant contribution. That, however, has been debunked. It’s undeniable, though, that a healthy Bradley basketball program would greatly enhance the Valley.

But when exactly is Bradley going to get healthy? The Braves won 20-plus games in four consecutive seasons from 2005-06 through 2007-08, but were just 40-32 in the Valley during those seasons (11-7, 10-8, 9-9, 10-8). Since 2010-11, Bradley is 21-53 in conference games.

The days of Hawkins, Roger Phegley and Chet Walker are long gone. Bad basketball has taken over in Peoria.

It’s a shame.