Bradley Confident It Can Run With Michigan State: "We Have The Same Pieces"

It starts at the most important position on the floor.

Will Burchfield
March 20, 2019 - 6:19 pm

© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Categories: 

Des Moines, Iowa -- It hit them right away, then became clearer and clearer as the film continued to roll. By the end of that first scouting session Sunday night in preparation for Michigan State, the players on Bradley's basketball team felt they had just scouted themselves. 

The Spartans push the pace in transition, crash the offensive glass and dig in at the other end of the floor. The Braves made their way to the NCAA Tournament relying on an almost identical formula. And they love what that means for their chances of pulling a stunner on Thursday. 

"They play a lot like us, which is kind of cool. We match up really well," said senior guard Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye. "They compete, they defend, they rebound, some of the stuff that we concentrate on. It’ll be a fun game because it’s two teams that play similar going against each other." 

A fun game is one thing. A close game is often another. This a 15-seed taking on a 2-seed, and things will have to get crazy for Bradley to close that gap.

But an element of crazy has already characterized this team's season. The Braves started 0-5 in the Missouri Valley Conference, then rebounded to make the finals of their conference tournament. They found themselves down by 18 in the second half, then rebounded again to punch their ticket to March.

They aren't daunted by long odds. And they're not convinced their odds are so long against the Spartans, anyway. 

"I got a glimpse of them playing in the Big Ten Championship this past Sunday," said junior point guard Darrell Brown. "I mean, they're a great team, we respect that, but we have the same pieces and we can match up with them across the board. I feel like we have a great chance."

If Bradley and Michigan State are cut from the same cloth, it starts at Brown's position. He's the leading scorer and the best player on his team, just like his counterpart Cassius Winston.

At first blush, neither one of them stands out. But their numbers in the box score almost always do. And they get their buckets with the same guile around the hoop and the same clutch -- and somewhat unorthodox -- stroke from behind the three-point line. 

"He's not the most athletic just like myself, but he still knows how to play the game," Brown said of Winston. "He gets his guys involved and he knows how to score the ball, so I respect it a lot. But it’ll be a battle Thursday. ... He’s a great point guard, I feel like I'm a great point guard. May the best man win." 

Winston doesn't take offense to being deemed unathletic. ("Can't get mad about facts," he said with a laugh.) He appreciates the similarities between his game and Brown's. There's a mutual respect between the two that's rooted in making the most out of what they've been given. 

When asked if he encountered a point guard this year who reminds him of Brown, Winston was momentarily stumped. 

"That's a good question," he said. 

And he never really came up with an answer.

"I would say the closest would be myself," Winston decided. "Just his movements, using his body. He knows his spots, knows how to get his shot off. He does a good job of all that."

Brown will get the chance on Thursday to prove it on the biggest stage of his career, against one of the best point guards in the country. He doesn't view it as a one-on-one matchup -- and it never is -- but there's no hiding from an obvious fact. If Brown can keep pace with Winston, the Braves will have a much better chance of keeping pace with the Spartans. 

In Bradley's locker room, there's little doubt he's up to the task. Sitting in the stall next to Brown, who was wearing his red cap backwards as he entertained a rotating crowd of reporters Wednesday morning, senior forward Luuk van Bree said, "Darrell can play with anybody."

At 6'9, van Bree takes up most of his locker. Brown, generously listed at 5'10, almost gets swallowed by his. (Come to think of it, Winston's 6-1 listing seems generous, too.) But he looks every bit his listed weight of 190 lbs. when he comes to his feet and pushes out his chest, and his presence is even larger than that. 

Brown didn't come to Des Moines to be cast as an underdog, even if he clearly is. He deflected the subject when it was broached, and suggested taking the question elsewhere in the locker room. 

"He plays big in big games," said Lautier-Ogunleye. "He’s not scared of nobody. He plays hard, he dominates on the ball and they gotta stop him. We’ll see if they can."

And we'll see if Bradley can stop Michigan State, the best team in the Big Ten. The Braves feel strongly that they're equipped to do it, that every challenge presented by the Spartans is a challenge they present themselves.

It's not about taking away what Michigan State does well, like its patented fast-break offense. It's about neutralizing those strengths by responding with more of the same. 

"Not a lot of teams have applied pressure to us in transition," Spartans forward Xavier Tillman acknowledged. "Michigan started doing it, that was the first team that I really saw. Indiana was doing it, too. But a lot of teams don’t apply pressure in transition. But those guys (Bradley), all five of their starters can push it." 

And they can get back and defend. 

Ultimately, that's what gives the Braves the most confidence heading into Thursday. They've made their name on defense since the arrival of head coach Brian Wardle four years ago, and that identity is as strong as ever. 

Maybe they can catch the Spartans by surprise. 

"We feel like we play defense like no other team they played," said Brown. "That point alone gives us a chance, regardless of who they have and who we have. As long as we play defense we have a chance -- and I like our chances."