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March 21, 2006

Bradley reveling in return to the spotlight

PEORIA, Ill. - Vaudeville acts. Politicians. Consumer products. Concert tours. And now the Bradley Braves.

With their first trip to the NCAA's regional semifinals in 50 years, the Braves are proving yet again that if something can play in Peoria, it'll be a hit all over the country.

''There were a lot of people writing us off, who didn't think we should be here,'' said Marcellus Sommerville, Bradley's leading scorer and one of four Peoria-area natives on the team. ''But we're still standing.''

The 13th-seeded Braves (22-10) weren't given much of a chance in the NCAA tournament, dissed and dismissed along with the rest of their Missouri Valley Conference brethren. (Don't get folks here started on Billy Packer.) They were the middle of the mid-majors at best, the so-called experts sniffed, not likely to give power-conference teams much of a challenge.

Tell that to Kansas and Pitt.

Combining stingy defense with a well-rounded offense, Bradley upset the fourth-seeded Jayhawks in the first round, then easily handled fifth-seeded Pitt to become the lowest seed since Oklahoma in 1999 to reach the regional semifinals. It's also the Braves' first trip to the round of 16 since 1955.

Bradley plays top-seeded Memphis on Thursday night in Oakland.

''A lot of people were criticizing us, saying our games were low-scoring, we'd never be able to score with the big guys. Well, I think that's because we play defense,'' said 7-foot center Patrick O'Bryant. ''We pride ourselves on stopping you, not just plain outscoring you.

''We're a really good team, and we can play with anybody out there.''

Basketball has a rich history in this industrial city in the heart of the Midwest, best known as the home of Caterpillar. Bradley has played in two NCAA championship games, losing to City College of New York (1950) and La Salle (1954). It also has four NIT titles, the most recent in 1982. Peoria High School won the very first Illinois prep title, and Central and Manual continue to be powerhouses. The state playoffs have been held at Peoria's Carver Arena since 1996.

But much like the city itself, Bradley's squad fell on hard times in the 1970s. A team accustomed to piling up 20-win seasons in bunches had its first losing season since 1954-55 - yes, the same year the Braves advanced to the NCAA's regional semifinals - in 1972-73, and there would be two more before the decade was out.

The 1985-86 squad that featured Hersey Hawkins and now coach Jim Les went 32-3 and is the last to go undefeated in the MVC's regular season, and they led Bradley to another MVC title as a senior in 1988. But the Braves would follow with five straight losing seasons.

''I was never familiar with Bradley basketball until I got here for the state championship,'' said senior Tony Bennett, who led Chicago Westinghouse to the Class AA title in 2002. ''When a person said Peoria, the first thing that came to mind was Central and Manual.''

Peoria is in the midst of a renaissance, though. The spruced-up riverfront now boasts restaurants, parks, shops and O'Brien Field, home of the Cubs' Single-A affiliate. Caterpillar had record profits and revenues last year. And construction recently began on a $12 million center to help entrepreneurs turn ideas into businesses.

When Bob Eid and Duane Greer opened One World, a coffee shop and restaurant, across the street from campus 13 years ago, they were about the only store on the block. Now they're part of a bustling neighborhood that will soon include a Starbucks, the ultimate economic sign of approval.

''Peoria really embodies the spirit of the entire country,'' Greer said. ''Like the basketball team, we took it hard back in the 1980s. We're coming back now.''

Now it's the Braves' turn.

When Les returned to his alma mater four years ago, he envisioned Bradley as the Midwest version of Gonzaga. A warm-and-fuzzy story when they made their spectacular run to the regional finals in 1999, the small-school 'Zags are now among the nation's elite.

''If they can do it, and their school is eerily similar to ours, sure it can be done here,'' Les said.

It took awhile, though. The Braves were 40-49 in Les' first three seasons, and they started the MVC season 2-4 this year.

''It's crazy but all along, I knew we were a good basketball team,'' Les said.

The Braves weren't lacking for talent. NBA scouts have been watching Sommerville (15.6 points and 6.8 rebounds) and O'Bryant (13.6, eight) all year, but Bennett and Lawrence Wright also average in double figures. The relentless defense limits opponents to less than 65 points a game, and 40 percent shooting.

Bradley wound up winning nine of its last 11 regular-season games, and advanced to the MVC tournament championship, where it lost to Southern Illinois. Though the Braves were confident they were worthy of an NCAA bid, not everyone else agreed.

''No matter where you looked, you always saw them saying, `They're not going to make it,''' O'Bryant said. ''I think we proved a lot of people wrong this weekend.''

And made a lot of new fans.

One of the feel-good moments of the tournament so far is the scene of the Bradley players wading into the stands to celebrate with their red-clad supporters Sunday afternoon. When they returned home later that day, more than 1,000 people were waiting for them at the airport.

At the University Shop a few blocks off campus, a fan was waiting to buy a ''Sweet 16'' T-shirt when it opened at 9 a.m. Monday. A sign outside a local gas station said simply, ''Go Bradley!'' One of Les' congratulatory calls was from former 76ers teammate Charles Barkley.

At the campus book store, employees worked feverishly Monday to fill the 500 orders for Braves merchandise that came in from across the country over the weekend. Students were signing up for ''Sweet 16'' T-shirts at such a furious pace that manager Paul Kroenke was worried the 600 ordered wouldn't be enough.

And on the first day back from spring break, basketball was the only suitable talk on the 6,000-student campus.

''Usually going to lunch, we talk about whatever,'' freshman Okenna Egwu said. ''The entire conversation today was basketball, basketball, basketball. It was great.''

If the Braves have their way, the party won't stop until they're playing in Indianapolis.

''Beats the alternative, doesn't it? Nobody calling, nobody caring what you're doing,'' Les said, grinning. ''Sleep is way overrated. I'll worry about that in a couple of weeks.''

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