Fresh off of yet another buzzer-beating dagger from Deonte Burton, the Wolf Pack will attempt to refocus in time to face an intriguing Drake Bulldogs team out of the Missouri Valley Conference.
For more information on Friday night’s opponent, we spoke with Mark Emmert of the Des Moines Register. Topics included center Seth VanDeest and what the Pack can potentially expect when they take to the court.
1. Drake came into this year as a bit of a wild card hoping to answer some key questions. How would you say their season has unfolded so far?
They’ve answered some key questions, namely that center Seth VanDeest is rounding back into shape after losing a year to shoulder surgery, and in fact may quickly prove to be better than ever. And his return has allowed Jordan Clarke to return to the power forward spot, where he has been terrific, posting double-doubles in each of his past four games. But the backcourt is still unsettled, with junior-college transfer Rich Carter running the point and struggling to find consistency. With Karl Madison recovering from knee surgery, that has forced true freshmen Kori Babineaux and Micah Mason to be Carter’s primary backups, and both have struggled with ball possession. At the shooting guard, Chris Hines, a senior transfer from Utah, also is returning from a knee injury and hasn’t yet found his stroke.
2. How has the team handled the loss of Rayvonte Rice, their former leading scorer who transferred to Illinois?
The team quickly moved on, and in fact you never really hear Rice’s name mentioned. But, as I said above, Hines is the guy expected to fill the bulk of the scoring load that he left behind, and so far that’s been a hit-and-miss prospect. Rice also was a tremendous help on the defensive glass, and led the team in steals, so those are two more voids that the Bulldogs are still looking to fill.
3. The Bulldogs lost two of their three games at the DirecTV Classic last weekend, beating Rice and coming up short against Cal and Xavier. Aside from forward Jordan Clarke and his three double doubles, what else stood out for Drake?
VanDeest continued to show he is working his way back into becoming a significant force inside, and Ben Simons didn’t shoot as well as he normally does, but he continues to provide great leadership and find ways to contribute. He averaged 17 points in the three games. Then, the Bulldogs got some strong performances from backup guard Gary Ricks Jr. and one terrific game from freshman forward Joey King. They have a lot of talented pieces, but are working to get them all performing well in the same game. Their three losses are to the best three teams they faced, by a total of 13 points. They haven’t shown yet that they can close out a win against a good team. That would be the next step, and Friday’s game provides a perfect test.
4. Tell us a little about center Seth VanDeest and his long road back to basketball.
Seth is an Iowa kid who was a bit of a late bloomer in high school, where he led his Bettendorf team to the state tournament as a senior. He was one of new coach Mark Phelps’ first big recruits, and started every game as a freshman and sophomore, showing a nice scoring touch for a 6-foot-11 center but also often getting pushed around. He injured his shoulder in a summer-league game after his sophomore year, requiring surgery, then injured the other one (though not as severely) during the rehab process. That cost him all of last year. During the time off, he concentrated on building strength, particularly in his lower body, and also put on weight, perhaps too much. He came into this season at about 270, and is now down to 260, still trying to get his stamina back. But he has shown that he’s much more aggressive about attacking the basket and rebounding. He appears to be getting much better each time out, and can be a big help to Drake’s front court, which was very thin without him.
5. Scheme-wise, what can an opposing coach typically expect to face when they play Drake?
Drake is mixing things up a little bit more this year than in the past, probably as a result of its increased depth and athleticism, but primarily plays man-to-man defense. The Bulldogs have thrown some late-game presses at opponents that have proven effective. On offense, Simons is typically the first option, and seems to be in constant motion in an attempt to get open looks. But VanDeest and Clarke give them a solid presence down low, and they can bring some scoring punch off the bench when King and Ricks are hitting from the arc.
6. Where on the court do you believe Friday night’s game will be decided? Also, predict the final score, if you wish.
I won’t predict a final, except to say that I would expect it to be close like most Drake games have been this year. I think perimeter play will decide the contest. Drake needs a mistake-free outing from Carter, and to get Hines, Ricks and Simons to knock down their shots. This is another great opportunity for Drake, on the road against a quality team. It should be a good game. I wish it were being played here, but enjoy it, gentlemen.
Mark Emmert is the deputy sports editor at the Des Moines Register, covering Drake sports and the NBA Development League’s Iowa Energy. He can be followed on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.