Even after Wednesday’s home loss to Illinois State — one in which Drake led by 17 points in the first half — the Bulldogs (11-12, 5-7) remain on an upswing heading into Sunday’s 7 p.m. tip at UE (13-11, 6-6).
Coach Mark Phelps discussed his team’s rebound earlier this week on the MVC’s teleconference.
“I think it’s, especially with our team this year, it’s a comfort level,” Phelps said Monday. “We’re still in the process of integrating eight new guys, and I think it’s more than anything a comfort level being at home – being in the gym where you practice every day – and being in front of the home crowd and feeling that support. Honestly, if you asked anyone else, you’d probably get the same cookie cutter answer. I don’t know that there’s anything magical. I just think it’s being more comfortable at home…It’s overwhelming the success of home teams over road teams.”
UE is 5-0 at home this season, one of three undefeated MVC teams in their own building along with Creighton and Indiana State. Drake has won just three times season on the road, surprising for a team with seven upper-classmen. “That’s a fair assessment,” Phelps said. “The issue with our returning guys has been, in a very natural way, they’ve been self-consumed with getting back to playing basketball the way they normally do because of health issues. It’s a natural thing. You still challenge your players – your older guys – to give you leadership. We’re doing that, and quite honestly I feel like that’s why we’re having some recent success as well. Ben Simons and Jordan Clarke have stepped up for us. Seth VanDeest has done that as well for us in pockets. That’s certainly our expectation, is that guys who have been here lead us through the battles.”
Since a four-game losing streak to start MVC play, Drake has come back to win six of its last nine. Where are the Bulldogs better? “I would say at both ends,” Phelps said. “I think we’re a little better on defense. I think we’re mixing in some zone with our man to man, which has helped us. There for a while, we just had guys we normally rely on to score and make shots that weren’t happening. I think those guys have gotten back to who they are. Typically, we’re scoring a little better and sharing the ball a little better. We have a little better rhythm on the offensive end. I don’t think you can point to any one area. I think we’ve made some broad improvement on the way we’re playing at both ends.”
The Bulldogs have a penchant for beating MVC teams at their best — Creighton, Indiana State and UE after its win over Wichita State. “Well, I think what it’s done for us has kind of confirmed the fact that we think we have good players, and when all of those good players play to their potential together, on any given night we can be pretty good,” Phelps said. “I still don’t think we’re a great team. I think we’re coming together. But we do have enough pieces that when we do play well individually and play well together, we can be pretty good. I think those wins are validation of those beliefs, and that’s what’s helped us.”