Stories from UE’s 76-70 loss at Bradley, the Aces’ fifth straight Missouri Valley Conference road defeat:
—Before Bradley and UE’s first matchup, Braves coach Geno Ford said on a Jan. 21 MVC teleconference that the biggest difference between this and last year’s teams is toughness. Bradley didn’t display that trait in a 10-point loss earlier this month, but the Braves sure did last night. In a back-and-forth, jawing-heavy game at Carver Arena, Bradley made it to the free throw line 26 times, better known as 12 more times than the Aces. The Braves were in the bonus, too, for most of the second half and got to the line for eight attempts after UE tied the score at 70-70 inside of two minutes to play. Ford said UE and Wichita State are the toughest teams in the MVC. By his own postgame press conference, Aces coach Marty Simmons was ready to lump Bradley in that group as well.
—UE senior Colt Ryan is teetering on another milestone. After scoring a season-high 27 points against Bradley, he’s six away from becoming the 14th player in MVC history to reach 2,000. That’s superstar status. That’s something, now with former Aces swingman Jordan Jahr off the team, Simmons can use as a recruiting pitch over the summer if he wants to fill any of two open scholarships. Ryan should go on to make a career out of playing basketball. It’s only a matter of where he chooses. With former Simmons-coached players Denver Holmes and Shy Ely doing the same in Europe (I’ve heard Kenny Harris is playing professionally as well), that’s a decent pool of players the Aces have established to go with recruiting tools such as the Ford Center and new practice facility.
—UE’s now lost its last three road games by 10 combined points. I asked senior Troy Taylor what the common denominator might be in each of the close losses, as opposed to the 54-51 overtime victory last week against Northern Iowa. He said there’s not one thing, and Simmons added that the Aces have to address a “plethora” of fundamental problems on both sides of the ball. On offense, that’s the tendency to stand around and get low percentage looks at the basket. Defensively, everything UE seeks to prevent breaks down if opponents are able to penetrate into the lane. Under-sized defenders have to collapse and help, giving foes that free throw advantage or at the very least, a high percentage look. At this point, Simmons and company know what needs to be fixed. Now it’s a matter of getting it done.
—About 10 minutes before tip, I sent the following tweet: “Heard Bradley games at Carver Arena usually make for a good environment. For that to happen tonight, empty seats will have to get loud.” A late-arriving crowd in Peoria, Ill., proved me wrong. The announced 6,653, as a similarly sized crowd at Illinois State did two weeks earlier, made a difference at the right times. And they did it with some help from inconsistent officiating. Sitting right next to UE’s Simmons, I know the Aces’ bench was shocked at some calls. A couple went the other way, too, such as when Ryan flopped on Dyricus Simms-Edwards in the second half. That call, which went against Simms-Edwards, sent the crowd into its first frenzy. The momentum carried through on a 26-6 Braves run and another Aces road loss.
—Another defeat, UE’s fifth in seven games, positions the Aces in an MVC standings logjam. Creighton is two games (in the loss column) ahead of Indiana State and Wichita State, a surprising loser Tuesday against Southern Illinois. From there, three teams — UE, Bradley and Northern Iowa — are four games back of the Bluejays and each in a dangerous position just one game ahead of ninth-place Illinois State. The goal here is to make the path at Arch Madness as painless as possible. Finishing seventh or worse in the league means having to play a Thursday game at the conference tournament and, with a win, moving on to face a No. 1 or 2 seed the next day. An ideal landing spot for the Aces right now would be third or sixth, which would mean a Saturday matchup against the No. 2 seed and no Creighton until Sunday’s Arch Madness championship.