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Drake Bulldogs: Are They For Real?
by Matt Fargo - 01/18/2008
One look at the Missouri Valley Conference standings makes you wonder what the heck is going on. Bradley, Wichita St. and Northern Iowa are all at the bottom half of the conference with losing records while 1st place is vacated by Illinois St. and Drake. The Redbirds were picked to finish middle of the pack while Drake was predicted to finish low and was even picked to end up dead last in the Valley by Athlon Sports. Whatâ€™s up with this early season success?
The Bulldogs lost four starters from last season as well as head coach Dr. Tom Davis so there certainly were some question marks heading into the season. Lost were top scorers Ajay Calvin and Nick Grant along with point guard Al Stewart and top shot blocker Aliou Keita. Taking over for Davis was his son Keno who spent four years as an assistant under his father so it was a pretty seamless transition. Even though a lot was lost on the court, good experience returned along with some very talented youth.
The Bulldogs finished last season with a 17-15 record which was the first time they have had a winning record in 20 years so it is obvious the confidence and momentum carried over from last season. Every four years, teams can take a summer trip to practice and play some exhibition games and Drake did that this past summer. The Bulldogs traveled to the Bahamas in August and went 4-0 and while the record meant nothing, the gained experience and early sessions jelled this team together.
Improved defensive play has been a key to Drakeâ€™s 15-1 start. Drake is ranked eighth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 57.1 ppg and it has held its last 13 opponents to a combined 39 percent shooting from the floor. This is a huge difference from last season as Drake allowed 74.2 ppg which was the worst in the Valley. In eight of the Bulldogs nine home games, they have held the opponent to 55 points or less. The lone exception was Duquesne but it was held 22 points below its season average.
On an individual standpoint, the team is led by sophomore Josh Young, the top freshman scorer in the Valley last season. He is averaging 16.3 ppg which is tops in the conference. The floor general is senior Adam Emmenecker who came off the bench last season and wasnâ€™t even sure of a starting spot this year. All he has done is average 5.1 apg which is tied for 2nd in the Valley and his 1.89 assist/turnover ratio is good for 1st. Taking some of the scoring load off Young is Leonard Houston, who averages 14.9 ppg.
Forward Jonathan Cox showed what he could do on that Bahamas trip and he has carried that over, averaging 12 ppg while shooting a team best 50 percent from long range. The wild card however has been Klayton Korver, the brother of Utahâ€™s Kyle. Korver has been plagued by injuries his entire career but he is as healthy as ever. He isnâ€™t scoring much yet as his range needs to be found but he brings back the most experience and his leadership is unmatched. He also leads the team at the free throw line at 85.7 percent.
The schedule has been pretty average for the Bulldogs as they have been tested only a couple of times, namely Duquesne, Iowa and St. Maryâ€™s. Their first three Valley road games came at the worst three teams in the conference as Bradley, Wichita St. and Evansville are a combined 2-16. Home teams are winning at a 75.8 percent clip this season and the remaining six conference road games are against teams a combined 48-9 on their home floors, good for 84.2 percent.
The biggest test of the Valley season comes this Saturday as the Bulldogs host Illinois St. in a battle of the 1st place teams. Drake has won all nine home games by an average margin of 24.1 ppg, including four games by 30 or more points so it has certainly enjoyed its home slate. However, this one could be more difficult and not just because the Redbirds are undefeated. Drake may be playing this one without Young, who is questionable with an ankle injury. He has missed the last two games.
Drake is 2nd in the country with a 10-2 ATS (83.3 percent) mark, trailing only North Carolina. Proving that defense is the reason, 11 of those 12 games have gone under the total with the one exception going over by just 8.5 points. The most surprising fact of the totals run is that the linesmakers have actually increased the posted total in each of the last six games so that is something to keep an eye on. Defense wins games and as long as the unit remains strong, we should see plenty more Bulldogs covers this season.