Drake Basketball: Are the Bulldogs a March Madness Cinderella in the making?

Sharing the namesake of the global music icon, Drake men’s basketball is now in the limelight after a thunderous 13-0 start to the season.

Picked seventh in October’s MVC poll after losing leading scorer Liam Robbins to Minnesota, no team in the nation has been a bigger pleasant surprise in college basketball.

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Here’s everything you need to know about Drake basketball:

DeVries’ program turnaround

Since taking over as head coach in April 2018, Darian DeVries has funneled quality talent into Des Moines largely via the transfer market. UAB transfer Nick Norton committed a week after DeVries’ arrival and was averaging 14 points a night in ’18-19 before a season-ending knee injury. Iowa transfer Brady Ellingson also committed that week, sewing together an All-MVC campaign as a grad transfer.

Roman Penn, this year’s starting point guard, became a Bulldog as well during DeVries’ 2018 roster overhaul. The former Siena Saint sets the table for the efficient offense, tallying 5.7 assists per game in his 47 career Drake appearances while shooting 41.4 percent from deep. Penn broke out with 26 points, eight assists and eight rebounds as the Bulldogs pounded league favorite Northern Iowa last March in the MVC quarterfinals. He currently leads the conference in win shares.

Overall, six of Drake’s top eight scorers began their college careers at a different school. In addition to Penn, D.J. Wilkins (11.3 ppg) and Tremell Murphy (7.8 ppg) are JUCO products from Florida Southwestern, ShanQuan Hemphill (14.2 ppg) is from Green Bay, Darnell Brodie (6.5 ppg) came over from Seton Hall and Jonah Jackson (4.5 ppg) is a fellow JUCO transfer from John A. Logan.

The future is bright as well. Tucker DeVries, son of head coach Darian DeVries, is committed to the Bulldogs out of the 2021 class. DeVries, a four-star recruit by 247Sports, is the highest-rated commit in program history. He carried offers from a handful of high-majors, including Creighton, Florida and Iowa State. Though it would be a bigger surprise if Tucker DeVries hadn’t committed to his father, having a player of his caliber is a huge boon for the future of the program.

Good teams win, great teams cover

As the old adage goes, good teams win and great teams cover. By this definition, Drake is certainly a great team.

Not only are the Bulldogs the only 13-0 team in college basketball (three more victories than anyone else as of Wednesday morning), they have covered the spread in each of their 11 Division-I matchups.

Betting info courtesy of TeamRankings.com.

This kind of run is almost impossible. As Yahoo Sports’ Frank Schwab points out, the Kansas City Chiefs had the best record in the NFL season and went just 7-9 against the spread. Within college basketball, Gonzaga has been dominating everyone in its path and it stands just 6-4 against the spread, according to TeamRankings. No team besides Drake is unbeaten against the spread with more than six wins.

Drake’s success is sustainable

What makes Drake especially promising is its success isn’t fluky or unsustainable. Of course, KenPom projects the Bulldogs have a lower than 1-in-100 chance of finishing the regular season undefeated. But it would be a complete shock if DeVries’ team fell out of the MVC race and at-large picture based on its current makeup.

One of the main reasons Drake is still unbeaten is its offense is both balanced and efficient. The Bulldogs are averaging 120.9 points per 100 possessions, which ranks fourth nationally in raw offensive efficiency behind only Baylor, Iowa and Gonzaga. No Drake player is tallying more than 15 points per game and the team as a whole ranks third in D-I in 3-point percentage and fifth in effective field-goal percentage.

This mix of balance and efficiency is unlike anything in the nation right now. According to data from BartTorvik.com, Drake is the only team in college basketball that has seven different players with a usage rate above 16 and effective field-goal percentage better than 53 percent. The full list of teams with at least five such players is below.

Data is courtesy of BartTorvik.com.

Most teams can get hot for a short span. Drake’s marksmanship, however, is sustainable. Each of Drake’s seven key contributors are above the 50 percentile in shot quality, including Garrett Sturtz at 97 percentile and Shanquan Hemphill at 89 percentile. As a team, the Bulldogs rank 35th nationally in ShotQuality’s team metric and are projected to have 11.7 wins based on shot quality this season, which shows the team’s strong start is hardly a fluke.

Penn and fellow guard Joseph Yesufu are both perimeter threats and noted distributors, swingman Hemphill attacks the rim with flare (14 of his 61 made 2-point field goals vs. D-I teams have been dunks) and more than a quarter of Darnell Brodie’s made field goals have come on offensive putbacks, per Hoop-Math.

Perimeter shooting? Got it. Second-chance points? You bet. Depth? Drake is 51st nationally in bench minutes. Taking care of the basketball? DeVries’ team does that as well.

Drake could be undervalued in March

As is often the case with mid-majors, Drake could enter March Madness vastly under-seeded. With nonconference play greatly altered due to COVID-19, the Bulldogs were only afforded one game against a high-major in Kansas State, which is 5-7 with a loss to D-II Fort Hays State.

Unless an MVC team like Loyola Chicago breaks out, Drake’s quality win bucket will be fairly empty come Selection Sunday. Here’s what the Bulldogs’ NET team sheet looks like as of Wednesday morning:

Image courtesy of WarrenNolan.com. Click to enlarge.

Loyola Chicago (57), Missouri State (96) and Bradley (106) are the only other MVC teams that rank in the top 150 in NET rankings. Drake hosts Loyola Chicago on Sunday and Monday in games that will fall under Quad-2, as would the Bulldogs’ road series against Missouri State (Jan. 17-18) and Bradley (Feb. 26-27). Unless either Missouri State or Loyola Chicago can climb more than 20 spots in the NET between now and Selection Sunday, Drake will likely have zero results against Quad-1 opponents this season.

Though this season is unlike any other in college basketball, it’s difficult to envision a scenario where the NCAA Tournament selection committee seeds Drake highly without a true signature win. As a result, the Bulldogs could enter the tournament seeded more so according to their lackluster resume as opposed to their formidable on-court abilities. This is a perfect recipe for a first-round tournament upset. Watch out.



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