Bradley University basketball has taken plenty of lumps so far this season.
But a collection of 10 players barely out of high school —the youngest team in NCAA Division I — is starting to grow and learn together.
Success won’t come overnight for a team that was 2-10 overall just before Christmas, but it’s a group which could eventually restore the luster to a program that’s reached just one NCAA tournament since 1996.
“It’s a one-day-at-a-time process with these guys,” first-year coach Brian Wardle said recently. “Every game is going to be a war for us this year. We’ve got to kind of muddy it up if we can and defend and rebound and then hopefully offensively we can start clicking in longer segments and put it together.”
Wardle was a winner at Wisconsin-Green Bay and the Horizon League — his last coaching stop — but faces a more challenging Missouri Valley schedule starting on Wednesday at Northern Iowa.
In the meantime, Bradley took a baby step forward with a with a 61-53 non-conference victory over Maryville on Dec. 17 at Carver Arena to snap a nine-game losing streak.
Guard Antoine Pittman, a freshman from Rockford Auburn, led with 11 points as Bradley shook off a sluggish start to overtake Maryville by halftime and maintain a lead through the second half.
“A win is a win, but we still have a lot to work on,” Pittman said. “We still had 14 turnovers and we want to get that lower. We still want to grow and become a better team. … We all know the big picture, we all know the process and we all work hard.”
On Dec. 8 at Texas-Arlington the Braves started five freshmen in what was believed to be a first by a Bradley team in the modern era of freshman eligibility that began in 1972.
The roster features 10 freshmen, two seniors and one sophomore. In the last three years combined, the Braves lineup featured just eight first-year players and no more than three in any season.
Five teams around the country have 10 or more freshmen this season, but the Braves have the highest percentage (83.3 percent) of first-year players.
“You can see the progression of their team,” said Maryville coach Kevin Carroll. “I know it’s not showing up in wins, but they play some really good teams. And just having gone through this myself — last year we had nine freshmen — every single day you’re trying to fill new potholes. (But) they showed some composure and I was very impressed.”
Bradley’s newbies also have a decidedly international flavor.
Leading scorer Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye, a guard from London, England, averaged a team-best 9.4 points per game through mid December. Forward Callum Barker, a 6-foot 9-inch forward from Australia, played on that country’s Under-19 national team. He was averaging 7.7 points and 4.4 rebounds.
Joe Okafor, a freshman guard from Lagos, Nigeria by way of Richmond, Ind., was averaging 2.3 points. And 6-9 Dutch forward Luuk van Bree had a 6.0 point scoring average and 3.8 rebounds per game.
“I enjoy going to work everyday with them, we have good-hearted guys,” Wardle said. “They give good effort, the chemistry’s good, they’re positive, they know they’ve got to get better. They’ve got to own it and learn and move on.”
Reminders of Bradley’s storied basketball past are visible throughout Peoria’s Carver Arena.
Banners suspended from the rafters represent national acclaim and 1950 and 1954 NCAA Final runner-up finishes, an NCAA 1955 Elite Eight trip and National Invitation Tournament championships in 1957, 1960, 1964 and 1982.
There’s also a standard marking the Braves’ run to the 2006 NCAA Sweet 16.
But there hasn’t been a lot to celebrate lately. The Braves have had just one winning season since 2010, an 18-17 record in 2012-13 under former coach Geno Ford. But Bradley slipped from there to 12-20 the next year and 9-24 in 2014-15, leading to Ford’s dismissal after four seasons.
Wardle, now in his sixth year as a NCAA Division I head coach, was named the 14th head coach in Bradley history in 2015 after successful five-year run at Wisconsin-Green Bay.
A Willowbrook, Ill. native, Wardle was a two-time all-state player at Hinsdale Central High School, ranked as the school’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder. He was also an honorable mention selection on the USA Today All-USA Team.
He went on to star at Marquette and helped the Golden Eagles to a pair of NIT appearances (1998, 2000). Wardle ended as the school’s seventh all-time leading scorer with 1,690 career points, averaged double figures all four years from 1997-98 through 2000-01 and led the Golden Eagles in scoring in each of his final three seasons.
He was voted team captain in each of his last two years.
After two seasons of lower level pro basketball, Wardle returned to Marquette as director of operations and then spent five years as a Green Bay assistant.
He was named Green Bay head coach in 2010 at the age of 30 — at the time the youngest coach in NCAA Division I — and went on to a 95-65 record and three straight post-season appearances and 24-victories in each of his final two years.
He also had a slow start at Green Bay, suffering through a share of losses in his early days before building the Phoenix into a Horizon League powerhouse.
Wardle is drawing on those lessons in his inaugural Bradley season.
“I think the chemistry happens with your head coach and your staff and the people surrounding the program and we’re very positive people,” he said. “We know this year was going to be a work in progress and we’ve got to keep grinding it out day-by-day.”
–New coach, nation’s youngest team looks to restore prominence of Bradley basketball–