Summer 2006 • Volume 12, Issue 3
Jubilant fans, including members of the alumni band, gathered at the airport to greet players and coaches and to celebrate victories over Kansas and Pittsburgh. The win over Pitt sent the Braves to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1955. That year, they advanced to the Elite Eight from a field of 24 teams. The Braves defeated Oklahoma City University, 69-65, and Southern Methodist, 81-79, before losing to Colorado, 93-81.
Sweet 16: Braves’ NCAA run
All the rage...Stylin' in Bradley red
Returning home from the NCAA tournament, Coach Jim Les ’86 had some advice for Bradley fans: “You can give your orange [University of Illinois] shirts to Goodwill because I have a fashion tip for you—red is back in a big way.”
The crowd broke out in wild applause, the likes of which a men’s basketball team hadn’t heard in Robertson Memorial Field House for a long time. And red is back in style, as employees of the Bradley bookstore can attest. They were overwhelmed with requests for red sweatshirts, Braves flags, and “Sweet 16” T-shirts during Bradley’s run in the NCAA tournament. The trend extends to more than sweatshirts—Bradley basketball itself is all the rage.
At the start of the 2005-2006 season, Bradley fans felt cautiously optimistic. Coach Les, in his fourth year, had recruited almost all the players on the team and had developed an excellent coaching staff. The team boasted a nucleus of talented and experienced seniors. NBA scouts kept tabs on sophomore seven-footer Patrick O’Bryant.
Despite the positive outlook, cautious optimism was understandable. The Braves hadn’t appeared in the NCAA tournament since 1996, when they suffered a first-round loss to Stanford. Les was a Braves point guard the last time the team made it to the second round of the tournament in 1986.
They started the season with a road victory over DePaul, but by mid-January, the season seemed to have lost its glow. On January 11, after their third consecutive loss, Les announced that, with the exception of Tony Bennett ‘06, all starting positions had to be earned in practice.
Les had the team’s attention. During the next game, the Braves pounded Evansville, winning by 28 points, their most lopsided MVC win since 1999. The team finished the season with five straight double-digit wins. They crushed 25th-ranked Northern Iowa in front of over 8,000 fans at UNI’s Senior Night. The 71-49 win gave the Braves their first triumph over a nationally ranked team in 20 years.
"After Pittsburgh it hit me. Man, we've come a long way . . ."
They ended the regular season decisively, overtaking Drake, 86-66. Marcellus Sommerville ’06 scored a career-best 30 points in his final game at Carver Arena. When the Braves arrived in St. Louis for the MVC tournament, they were on a five-game winning streak. After beating Creighton in the first round, Bradley knocked off top-seed Wichita State with O’Bryant, Sommerville, and Lawrence Wright ’06 scoring in double digits. The Braves finally fell in the title game to Southern Illinois on March 5.
Coach Les: the prophet
Even with the 59-46 loss to SIU, the Bradley faithful anticipated an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament. Les’ predictions when he became head coach in 2002 began to unfold. He said, “I envision a standing-room-only party at the Student Center as we wait to be seeded in the NCAA tournament, and we’re not just glad to be a part of it; we’re going there to win some games.”
This became the first of Les’ 2002 predictions to come true in 2006. On Selection Sunday, the crowd gathered at the Student Center learned that Bradley would play perennial powerhouse Kansas in the first round of the tournament on March 17. The team, thrilled to be selected, had no illusions about the Jayhawks, who had just won the Big 12 tournament and 15 of their last 16 games.
When the team left for the tournament on March 15, the rest of the students were on spring break. Bradley staff and loyal fans turned out at the Field House for a send-off rally. The players personally thanked each person, helping to create a bond between fans and the team that would only become stronger over the next week.
Players locked arms as they
Let the games begin
The next chapter, written at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Michigan, has already become legendary. Bradley dominated #4-seed Kansas the entire game, winning 77-73. Sommerville’s 21 points included five three-pointers. “There are a lot of people smiling tonight,” Coach Les said.
As the team and the fans prepared for their second-round game against #5-seed Pittsburgh, they felt anything was possible. The spirit of Bradley basketball was definitely thriving.
The press billed the March 19 game as a match-up of seven footers O’Bryant and Pittsburg’s Aaron Gray. O’Bryant dominated Gray so convincingly that Gray drew a technical foul when he slammed the basketball against the floor in frustration. As the buzzer sounded on the 72-66 upset, Bradley president Dr. David Broski—and many others—had tears in their eyes. Spectators at the Palace aren’t allowed to rush the court, so the players jumped into the stands, startling security guards, and were engulfed by elated fans who had stood throughout the game. In his weekly radio show the next day, Les said, “Our fans gave us fire.“ The players knew just how to thank them.
When he was hired four years earlier, Les had made another prediction: “I envision Missouri Valley Conference championships, 1,000 people at the airport welcoming us back from a successful road trip.” That, too, came true Sunday night after the Pittsburgh game. When the Braves landed in Peoria, well over 1,000 fans, members of the alumni band, and camera crews were waiting. Police were on hand to keep order, but the fans politely made a pathway down the center of the throng to receive their heroes.
The lowest seed to advance to the Sweet 16, Bradley became a“Cinderella” team. Reporters came to town, and the campus buzzed with excitement. Sports Illustrated put Marcellus Sommerville on its cover. Two charter jets carried fans to California for the third-round game. Bradley turned the Field House into a multimedia center where 3,000 fans watched Bradley play top-seed Memphis. Les was featured on several ESPN shows including its morning show, “Cold Pizza.”
More than 1,300 fans had come to Oakland Arena to cheer on the team, and, even after the buzzer sounded on the 80-64 loss, they were still cheering, stomping, and shouting “BU, BU.” The players, gracious throughout the tournament, hugged each other and their coaches. Then they stood on the court, looked up at their fans, and began waving and blowing kisses. The run had ended, but the legacy lives on.
As Coach Les and the players repeatedly told the press during this fantastic run, they were proud to have put Bradley men’s basketball “back on the map.” No less proud, the fans are still wearing their Braves’ gear, letting everyone know that Bradley red is all the rage.