Drake could be the best story in college basketball through the first seven weeks of the season. No team has a better record. At 13-0, Darian DeVries’ Bulldogs are receiving AP Top 25 votes and have managed to pull off one of the best starts in the history of the Missouri Valley Conference.
And they’ve done it despite losing Liam Robbins, who was the team’s best defender a season ago (he set the league record for blocks in a season) and can currently be seen starring for upstart, NCAA Tournament-bound Minnesota. Normally when a mid-major loses such a high-quality starter, the next season doesn’t go so swimmingly. Yet here’s Drake looking like a top-30 team and just maybe a March Madness Cinderella.
“Chemistry’s been awesome,” DeVries told CBS Sports this week. “We try to always keep a positive outlook on things. When someone leaves your program you’ve got to have guys fill in. We look at it as opportunities for someone to step up and fill a hole. Our team’s been very resilient with that over the three years here. The first year we had a Valley player of the year in Nick Norton and he tore his ACL when the team was 11-2 in our first league game. But we went on with a good culture in place and a good group of guys rowing in the same direction.”
Drake finished 24-10, tied atop the MVC standings that 2018-19 season. This is not supposed to happen there. Drake has been to just four NCAA Tournaments in its history and only one since 1971. That was the quirky 2007-08 year, when the Bulldogs went 28-5 and promptly lost as a No. 5 seed in the first round. The Drake gig has long been considered the hardest (or, at best, second-hardest) job in the Valley. DeVries has overcome the obstacles with ease though, holding a 57-24 record through his first two and a half seasons. He had nine scholarships to fill when he got the job, with only one returning starter. This is one of the best rebuilds in college basketball since 2018.
DeVries even being Drake’s coach is a story that might not have a parallel in men’s college basketball. DeVries interviewed in 2013 and 2017 for the post, getting passed over each time. Then in 2018, when Niko Medved left after one season for Colorado State, DeVries (who does not have an agent) reached out to athletic director Brian Hardin by email and requested an interview. DeVries grew up in Iowa, played at Northern Iowa and spent nearly two decades at Creighton, which sits 135 miles west of Drake’s campus.
“I’m not one of those guys that goes and chases jobs,” he said. “If I’m at a happy place with a wife and kids, I want to stay as long as I can where my wife and kids enjoy being. Creighton was a place we loved being at. Drake was a job an hour and a half from where I grew up. I have family in the community. I had a good grasp what it is and the school, the people around it — it’s a similar setup to Creighton.”
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DeVries doesn’t know how many people he beat out, but the third time was the charm. Hardin certainly knows so as well. Good fortune has also kissed the program this season in terms of scheduling. As of Wednesday night, only six other teams played at least 13 games (Liberty, Seton Hall, Sam Houston State, Oakland, Northwestern State, Minnesota). Drake has not lost one game to COVID issues. The positive vibes began right away with a win to open its season at Kansas State, a rare road victory for a Valley team over a Big 12 squad. DeVries said it was a bit surprising, but mostly because there were no exhibition games. It was a cold open. And he introduced a new defensive scheme with more pressing that paid off immediately.
Drake is the 19th team in the 114-year history of the MVC to win its first 13 games. It’s bested its previous program record of 8-0, which came in 1970-71. After hearing from a couple coaches who have watched them, it seems this team is no fluke. Twelve of its 13 victories have been by at least 10 points, including at Kansas State, and five wins coming away from home. Drake’s beating foes by 24.0 points on average, its 31-point beatdown of Southern Illinois on Monday serving as a loud moment of arrival.
What’s next is huge for Drake and the Missouri Valley. The Bulldogs will try to get to 15-0 this weekend at home against Loyola Chicago, the highest-ranked MVC team at KenPom. (The Ramblers check in at No. 45, while Drake is 60th.) It’s a huge series between the league’s two best teams. Drake and Loyola Chicago are sixth and seventh respectively in field goal percentage, nationally.
DeVries said the games on back-to-back days (Sunday and Monday forthcoming) give his guys five days to prepare, with an off day mixed in. It helps “clean up some things” with prep.
“We try not to overthink it,” DeVries said. “We want to be good at what’s gotten us here. Stay fresh, loose, free and aggressive.”
The Valley has strength at the top. In fact, the MVC went 41-23 in nonconference play, winning 64% of its games and making it the 10th-best noncon record for the conference in 40 years. If Drake and Loyola win the games they should, both can make it to the NCAA Tournament. Each received votes in the latest AP Top 25, and if Drake sweeps the Ramblers this weekend, it should definitely crack into next week’s rankings.
Female Loyola assistant eagerly awaits historic sideline debut
Two weeks ago the Court Reportwith the two programs (Siena and Merrimack) expected to be the last teams to play their first games in the 2020-21 season. Siena has since played, and Merrimack will finally get its first game in on Thursday. But there’s another team that is unexpectedly now waiting until at least Jan. 16 to play its first game: Loyola Maryland.
On the precipice of its first scheduled game last weekend the program had positive COVID tests surface, prompting its only pause to date. Now the Greyhounds will be the final team to play its first game of the 2020-21 campaign. And with this news, some delaying of Patriot League history. Corin “Tiny” Adams, a 32-year-old female assistant coach with the team, was officially hired by Loyola on Oct. 1. She’s the first female coach on a Patriot League men’s basketball staff.
And she’s patient but eager to make her debut. Adams told me Tuesday that she’s itching to hear the whistle and be back in game action — this time from the sideline, which she expects to be as thrilling as her playing days.
“I need that first game so I can be like, all right, cool, this is real,” she said. “I can continue doing what I want to do.”
Adams has been doggedly pursuing this moment — to coach a men’s college basketball team — for more than three years. She’s one of two female assistants on a D-I staff, Edniesha Curry at Maine being the other. Adams retired from playing in 2017 and pursued her master’s degree at Morgan State. At that point she also began working at a local high school (Baltimore Polytechnic Institute) with the boys varsity team. She knew then she wanted to coach on the men’s side and this was a foot in, given BPI was a top 25-level high school program with multiple D-I players.
Adams put together a package, including a book she wrote and included a note, which amounted to her mission statement and credentials to coach at the men’s D-I level. She attended the 2019 Final Four in Minneapolis and networked for days, going on a tight budget by flying Spirit Airlines and staying in an Airbnb outside of downtown Minneapolis. She got in touch with Curry and Nancy Lieberman, who’s among the most respected and well-known women’s coaches ever. (Lieberman also served as an assistant from 2015-18 with the Sacramento Kings.)
In 2019, persistent networking landed Adams an unpaid position 10 minutes down the road at Morgan State as video coordinator for the men’s basketball team. But she needed to pay the bills, and amid the pandemic over the summer she began teaching virtually as a physical education teacher at an alternative school.
“That was tough, but I had to pause my goals to make ends meet,” she told me. “At that point the season may not happen and there may not be an opportunity, despite the momentum I felt I was getting. Within a month of starting at the school, things started to move into place.”
The pandemic played a huge part in her getting Loyola job. Greyhounds coach Tavaras Hardy previously served on the Georgetown staff as an assistant to John Thompson III. He worked with Kevin Broadus, the coach at Morgan State. Over the summer, without access to his Loyola office, Hardy got to cleaning out and organizing his home one. And as he did, he came upon Adams’ book and résumé; she submitted it more than a year prior. He read it, and he called Broadus. Turns out, a player Hardy was recruiting was previously coached by Adams as well. A phone call led to a dinner led to an interview, and Adams found herself where she was determined to get to, even arriving a few years ahead of time.
There will be much more to show and tell about Adams’ story as Loyola’s season gets going, but first it has to get going. Jan. 16 is the date, the first time a Patriot League team has a female assistant on the sideline for a men’s game, making Adams the sixth woman in men’s D-I history to serve in such a role.
Coaches to carry John Thompson Jr.’s legacy on their shoulders
On Monday night, I sent out this tweet.
What I didn’t realize: that John Thompson Jr. towel will soon be all over television. Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton just happened to be one of the first to receive it because he is part of an NABC advisory group for the Committee on Racial Reconciliation. Last fall a coach on that committee — Gary Stewart of D-III Stevenson University — asked if it would be possible to have towels made up with the late Thompson’s image on them as a way to honor his memory and bring awareness to Thompson’s proud legacy.
After NABC director Craig Robinson went to John Thompson III to get the Thompson family’s blessing, the NABC made it happen and a few towels were sent out to coaches connected to the Committee on Racial Reconciliation earlier this season. Boynton has worn his ever since.
“Coach Thompson’s impact on college basketball, the Black community, and Black coaches in particular, continues to be enormous,” Boynton told me. “He raised the bar of expectations as it relates to a Black coach’s ability to win, while never wavering on his true mission and for always being courageous enough to stand on principle. His legacy extends well beyond the court and his example is one I try hard to emulate.”
There should be a great visual coming soon to college basketball. In the past week a towel was shipped to every head coach at every D-I, D-II, D-III and NAIA school. Assistants and players who would also like a towel can buy them for cost, and several programs have already purchased them for their staffs and players.
“It’s a tribute but also an educational piece as well to understand what he did and how huge a figure he was for social justice,” NABC spokesperson Eric Wieberg said.
Wieberg added that three anonymous donors have purchased towels for every program in every HBCU conference at every level. With the towels arriving at schools around the country this week, some coaches could replicate Boynton’s look as early as this weekend, but the big push will come the week of Feb. 15 during Black History Month. The NABC is asking every head coach to don the towel throughout their games that week and promote awareness about Thompson and the ongoing fights for social justice.
Boynton has been doing this consistently all season and said the towel will be a fixture on his shoulder deep into March.
“One game of a symbolic gesture, to me, just wasn’t enough,” Boynton told me. “I’ll continue to wear it throughout the season.”
Each week I highlight reader questions, so find me on Twitter and @ me with whatever you’d like answered.
Assuming a win vs. Texas is a mighty leap at this stage, but I’ll play along. Kentucky sits at 3-6 with a 2-0 mark the league. Big game at Florida awaits this weekend. No team’s record exists in a vacuum when it comes to NCAA Tournament selection, but if Kentucky fans want a benchmark, three SEC losses should be your max. Getting to 10 losses overall (assuming there’s an SEC bracket and UK doesn’t win the auto bid) is the most Kentucky could take and feel like it has hope. I’d recommend losing no more than two league games. The hill is steep.
This question comes in the wake of the NET making its debut this week. To answer the question, unfortunately it does not. And I don’t know if that day will ever come. From what I understand, the NCAA in part doesn’t want to release the detailed inner workings of the NET because it doesn’t want teams to be able to hire data analysts to reverse-engineer scheduling and in effect try to game the rankings the way the RPI was for a decade-plus. Then again, this comes down to playing (and defeating) quality opponents. The NCAA should be more transparent, and calls for this will be annual from coaches and media alike.
With the 2021 NCAA Tournament putting Assembly Hall and Mackey Arena in the mix to host first round (and potentially a couple second round) games, we already know that if Indiana and Purdue make the Dance they won’t be allowed to play on their home courts. But would Indiana be cleared to play at a fairly familiar venue like Mackey? Would Michigan be given the OK to play at Assembly Hall, or Villanova at Hinkle? I think so. I think the advantages are minimal and the selection committee won’t want to pigeonhole itself like this. But this is a distinction that needs to be made in advance of the bracket reveal on March 14.
Chet Holmgren getting selected over Emoni Bates — if Bates reclassifies to 2021 — seems like a long shot to me, but we’ll see how that goes. Your question hedges though, and I acknowledge that “in the discussion” for No. 1 is broad and so the answer is yes. A recent example being Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III playing together for a stint at Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix.
Love when readers come up with these great (nearly impossible to answer) questions. Has this ever happened? One team scheduled to play 12 consecutive games vs. ranked opponents? I can’t recall it. Sure, there have been teams in the peak years of the ACC and Big East where one team might have eight games in a nine-game stretch, but 12 straight? Statistically, though, it’s likely IU will luck out and find that one or two of those opponents won’t be ranked by the time the game gets played.
- NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt revealed Wednesday on CBS Sports Network’s that COVID-19 testing will be done in advance of getting to the NCAA Tournament, and then daily testing for teams once they get there. Also, he reiterated what I’ve previously reported, that the tournament will not be starting games two days after Selection Sunday, but the schedule will be very similar to what it’s been in the past. I’m expecting it to start the Friday after Selection Sunday.
- Caleb Mills was Houston’s best player. Houston’s the best team in the AAC, and can be top-10 good. But . It’s a curious plot twist. He’s not the only one …
- Oscar Tshiebwe left West Virginia. One piece of intel I’ve gained is that Tshiebwe wanted to step out and shoot 3-pointers (something he did not do once at WVU) and he thought his draft stock would be affected by playing for Bob Huggins. I’d expect to his next program by the end of January.
- If you missed this over the weekend, we have our first firing: Northern Illinois cut ties with Mark Montgomery, who’d been there for a decade. NIU struggled this season but the timing’s surprising.
- Clemson never won a game at UNC until a year ago. How about this: Could it go back-to-back at the Dean Dome? UNC’s won its past two games against 3-6 Notre Dame and 4-5 Miami by a combined three points. Clemson is 9-1 and in the conversation for best team in the ACC. Tigers at Heels scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday. It’s the first time in series history UNC will host Clemson wherein the Heels are unranked and the Tigers are.
- The NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis got all the recognition, but did you know: the entirety of the D-II men’s basketball tournament will be played in Evansville, Indiana, this year and the entirety of the D-III tournament will be in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
- Speaking of the NCAA Tournament, credit to Tim Burke for finding this nugget. When Hinkle Fieldhouse hosts 2021 tournament games, it will mark the first time since March 23, 1940, that the NCAA Tournament is played in that historic venue.
- Apparently, Mike Brey might rock shorts on the sideline for the rest of the season? Problematic.
- The longest home-court winning streaks in college hoops right now: Gonzaga at 44, Liberty at 29, Oregon at 28. Gonzaga will go for 45 on Thursday night with a big home test against BYU.
- This Jalen Suggs pass is the most mesmerizing play of the college basketball season so far. I texted Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd and asked him to give me a reaction to the viral dime. His thoughts are: “Better complete it!! And, better finish it!!” Yes, he went full coach-mind over this gorgeous piece of point guard play. I’ll just continue to geek out over this wizardry.