For the first time since its unforgettable 2007-2008 season, Drake men’s basketball is garnering national attention.
The Bulldogs are off to a school-record 13-0 start and are dominating their competition, defeating 12 of their 13 opponents by double-digits.
Picked seventh in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll, Drake’s emergence is largely tied to a scheme change within its defense.
“We shifted to what we had done when I was with Dana Altman at Creighton,” Drake Coach Darian DeVries said. “We went to more of our full-court pressure. Then, becoming more aggressive on the half-court. Trying to create some opportunities with our defense to create some offense. I thought it fit our personnel well.”
There’s more to it than defense, though.
Those who regularly watch the Bulldogs understand the journey to this season’s record start began once DeVries was hired in 2018.
When the Aplington native began to build his staff, a 20-plus year relationship with assistant coach Marty Richter led to him joining DeVries in Des Moines. At the time Richter was head coach at Florida Southwestern Community College, and after his arrival a talent-filled pipeline between the two schools emerged.
D.J. Wilkins and twins Anthony and Tremell Murphy all accepted offers from DeVries after beginning their college careers at Florida Southwestern and have been highly productive starters. Meanwhile, all-conference point guard Roman Penn, sharpshooting guard Jonah Jackson and high-flying wing Shanquan “Tank” Hemphill all grew up within 15 minutes of the Murphy twins and Wilkins around northwest Indiana.
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Hemphill — a graduate transfer from Green Bay who also played for Richter at Florida Southwestern — leads a balanced and deep Bulldogs rotation in scoring at 14.2 points per game. He also leads the team in dunks and is a key figure in DeVries’ new pressure defense.
“After (Hemphill) decided to transfer it made just a natural fit for him with our group of guys,” DeVries said. “He’s given us such a dynamic impact on both ends of the floor for us this year. He’s doing some fun things up in the air with the basketball a little bit.”
Penn is second in scoring at 12.1 points per game and leads the MVC in assists, averaging 5.8 per contest. Wilkins is third at 11.3 points per game and leads the conference in 3-point percentage (53 percent) and makes (35).
Tremell Murphy averages 7.8 points per game and is a key defensive stopper. Anthony, after two seasons as an all-conference honoree, is in his first year as a graduate manager for the Bulldogs.
“We had three scholarship players when we got the job, so we had a lot of work to do quickly,” DeVries said. “We were fortunate we were able to land some really good guys that got the culture started. Good players, too. That’s kind of what got it going (here).”
Along with the value of growing up playing AAU together — and some playing at Florida Southwestern together — Drake also has one of college basketball’s oldest starting lineups. The average age of the Bulldogs starters is 23. That’s equal to the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks.
Critics point out Drake’s 134th-rated schedule (WarrenNolan.com), but the unranked Bulldogs sit 12th in the latest NET rankings.
Unfortunately, though, the Bulldogs’ best opportunity to silence critics this past weekend against Loyola Chicago (7-2, 2-0) was postponed due to a recent positive COVID-19 test within their Tier 1 personnel. So, while the Bulldogs pause activities with an aim to return to full health, college basketball fans and pundits across the country will continue to see 13-0 Drake at the top of the MVC standings. Drake is set to return Jan. 21 at Northern Iowa.
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“We’ve certainly got a lot more attention here the last couple weeks,” DeVries said. “That part has been great for the team. Just to get a little recognition as we go along. It’s still pretty early in the conference race though.”