Thursday, March 20, 2008

Go Drake!

My alma mater is not particular known for its athletic program. Despite being a division I school, the focus has always been first and foremost, academics. Made up mostly of walk-ons with 3.0 or higher GPAs, the Bulldogs stunned everyone this year by winning the conference championship. So it's a pretty cool thing that this year Drake's student-athletes were invited the Big Dance, aka March Madness, aka, NCAA Men's Basketball tournament.

Tipoff for Drake v. Western Kentucky is at 12:30pm tomorrow, Good Friday. In our week of Good Things, we're hoping for a win.

Here's ESPN's take on Drake's success.

ST. LOUIS -- It's natural to assume there's something magical about Drake, hidden inside Keno Davis' brain, Adam Emmenecker's body or Dolph Pulliam's blue leather suit.

Adam Emmenecker's rise to Valley MVP has been just as impressive as Drake's season. Emmenecker was a three-year walk-on until this season.

When a team wins 11 more games than the year before, jumps six spots in the Missouri Valley standings, redrafts the school record book, reaches the NCAA tournament for the first time in 37 years -- earning a No. 5 seed in the West Region -- and yet still claims it doesn't know how everything went down, it might be time to check for pixie dust. Patience and persistence just don't seem like enough, especially with a roster of never-beens and never-would-bes.

But at Drake (28-4), it was enough. It had to be enough.

"When your academic standards are so high, there is not a quick fix," said Davis, the first-year Drake coach who succeeded his famous father, Dr. Tom Davis. "It's going to happen by bringing in the right type of athletes and then letting them progress over three, four, five years. You have to be patient.

"It's arguably the toughest job in this league, but it's very rewarding when you prove you can win."

Drake proved it could win this season, and the rewards have been invaluable. The Bulldogs won a school-record 28 games, capturing their first regular-season conference title since 1971, their first-ever Valley tournament title and their first postseason berth since 1986.

They did so behind a group that not long ago looked better suited for the scout team than the starting lineup:

• Emmenecker, a former walk-on who earned a scholarship the day before school started last fall, became the Valley's MVP.

• Forward Jonathan "Bucky" Cox, a former walk-on, earned second-team all-league honors.

• Guard Leonard Houston, a career reserve who had scored 193 points in three seasons, became the league's seventh-leading scorer (14 ppg).

• Wing Klayton Korver, known mainly for his bum knee and for being Kyle's little brother, ranked fourth in the league in 3-pointers made (77).

• Leading scorer Josh Young, who amassed 30 scholarship offers from mid-majors but none from the bigwigs, is considered the team's only find.

"We have a lot of overachievers," Emmenecker said.

At Drake, success wouldn't come any other way.

Raising the bar

Tom Davis saw this coming. Sort of.

At Drake's golf outing last spring, shortly after he had turned the program over to Keno, Dr. Tom made a speech. He praised a strong core of returning players who could help fill the gaps left by four graduating starters. He lauded Drake's 3-point shooting, its passing ability and its chemistry. Then, he handed the mic to Keno.

"Now he's retiring, and he's telling everybody how great we're going to be," the younger Davis joked.

"I thought, 'God, he's right. I've got to go back into coach-speak,'" Tom Davis said. "He put me in my place."

The father unintentionally raised the bar for his son, but deep down, Tom knew Keno could reach it.

Dr. Tom Davis got the job started at Drake. His son, Keno, has taken the Bulldogs to a record-setting season.

Keno had served as Tom's assistant for the previous four seasons at Drake. Unofficially, their coaching connection stretched back decades.

"He was on my bench literally from the time he could walk," Tom Davis said. "He'd been working on this in his mind for a lot of years. There isn't much that I'm going to say that he doesn't already know. But if you're going to be really good as a head coach, you can't try to copy anybody else."

Keno tweaked Drake's defense, using four variations before settling on a 3-2 matchup zone in early December. Drake still drills man-to-man during extended breaks to emphasize weakside help and movement, but during games it's all zone, with Emmenecker or Houston at the top.

After finishing last in the league in scoring defense (74.2 ppg) last season, Drake improved to fourth (60.9 ppg).

"It's shocking to me," said Davis, the Valley's coach of the year. "I thought we needed to change things up, but we got really good in that one defense."

With a surplus of shooters and no true post player, Davis implemented an up-tempo offense that has few confines. Besides Emmenecker, who is 0-for-2 from behind the arc, Bulldogs players spot up from just about anywhere. Young leads the league in 3-point shooting (44.6 percent) and Cox ranks fourth (42.6 percent).

"We made a deal with them," said associate head coach Chris Davis (no relation). "We would not get on them about shot selection or the quickness of a shot. We'd get on them about not playing defense because defense is effort, and we'd get on them about not rebounding. Other than that, we let them play."

Keno, 36, still collaborates with his dad, who tries to stay backstage. Tom only attends Drake home contests and will watch the NCAA tournament from his couch.

"I have to pry the advice out of him," Keno said. "I'm not going to take all of his advice, but I'm going to listen to it all."

Resurrecting the program

After posting a mind-boggling double-double (13 points, career-high 10 rebounds) in the Valley tournament quarterfinals, Emmenecker sat in Drake's empty locker room, shivering as he spoke.

A trip to the cold tub had finally cooled off the Valley's hottest player.

"It's kind of a dream," Emmenecker said. "You come in as a walk-on and you hope for the chance to have a scholarship and maybe a chance to play."

That's all Keno Davis promised when he gave Emmenecker a scholarship. No guarantee to start. No guarantee even to play.

"Obviously," Emmenecker said, "things have changed a little bit."

Emmenecker has started all 32 games and played a team-high 1,049 minutes. The senior leads the league in assists (199) and remarkably ranks 20th in rebounds (4.6 rpg), but he wasn't named MVP for his numbers.

"I knew he'd be a leader for us whether he was playing 10 minutes a game or 30," Davis said. "And we knew quite early that Adam was going to be in that starting position. But MVP of the conference? That's about as wild as Drake winning the conference."

Tom Davis admits he never had a walk-on become league MVP, but he encouraged walk-ons at Drake, much like he had at previous coaching stops.

Emmenecker had no Division I scholarship offers and nearly went to play baseball at Boston College before he rerouted to Drake. Cox, a junior, surveyed a bare scholarship landscape out of high school and elected to walk on for the Bulldogs.

"Recruiting sometimes spoils kids," Tom Davis said. "The walk-on is so appreciative to get a uniform, to make the travel squad, to get a chance."

All of Drake's players are making the most of theirs.

"We have a lot of guys who weren't handed anything when they got here," said Korver, who missed the 2005-06 season after undergoing microfracture surgery on his knee. "Guys were walk-ons, I had the knee injuries. I'm glad we're able to leave a legacy and kind of resurrect a program that was once one of the best in the country."


Dolph Pulliam was part of that program.

He played on Drake's 1969 Final Four team, the first of three consecutive squads to reach the NCAA tournament. But after coach Maury John left Drake for Iowa State in 1971, the team never made it back.

"We did not take care of the program," said Pulliam, now a radio analyst for the team. "And once we started to lose, it just [went] right on downhill. A lot of folks have said, 'Dolph, we will never get back to an NCAA tournament. We'll never win the Missouri Valley Conference again.'"

Many tied the losing to lofty academic standards, particularly the 2.0 rule. Every Drake student, athlete or non-athlete, is required to maintain a 2.0 GPA to participate in extracurricular activities.

Sandy Hatfield Clubb heard the gripes about grades when she arrived as athletic director in 2006.

"I told people if we're recruiting against Creighton and somebody says, 'Why do you guys have the 2.0 rule?' my response would be, 'Did you ask them why they don't?'" Hatfield Clubb said. "This is the minimum standard, not a high expectation."

But the expectation among fans remained low. Before she'd seen a game in the Knapp Center, Hatfield Clubb heard all about the dim lighting, the bad sound system and the quiet crowds.

Tom Davis felt the negativity, too, but Drake fans saw hope in him.

"They knew that I'd won," Tom Davis said. "They were at least open to it."

Winning has sold them.

At the Valley tournament, Bulldogs fans donning "Believe" buttons filled the Scottrade Center. Many crowded around Pulliam, touching the blue leather suit he wore for every game during Drake's 21-game win streak.

Drake never compromised its standards, and as this season showed, it didn't need to. Led by Emmenecker, who has a 3.97 GPA and four majors, nine Bulldogs players carry GPAs of 3.0 or higher.

"This is the story of Drake University, who we are," Pulliam said. "Our student-athletes mirror who our students are. They get a great education, and these kids compete.

"It's been our success story."

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