Drake a blessed reminder of college hoops ecstasy
INDIANAPOLIS -- Steve Miller once sang that you've got to go through hell before you get to heaven. Now I know what he meant.
I spent the week wading through the Kelvin Sampson swamp at Indiana. Sans hazmat suit.
Then, at week's end, I drove up to Hinkle Fieldhouse. Metaphorically apt, a Friday of sleet had given way to a Saturday of sunshine. When I got out of the car at Butler University, chimes were ringing. I think I might have heard angels singing, too.
I went inside the massive old basketball cathedral, where the late-afternoon sun was slanting through the windows. Oscar Robertson won state titles here. More recently, Greg Oden won regional titles here. Most famously, Bobby Plump capped the Milan Miracle here -- and was re-enacted here by Jimmy Chitwood in "Hoosiers."
This day, the assignment was to cover Drake beating Butler 71-64 in the BracketBusters marquee game. To sum up the experience in a word: Hallelujah.
The Bulldogs Squared constituted religious ecstasy for a scandal-scarred college basketball fan. Two very good teams playing a great game in a hoops shrine, with plenty to feel reassured about on either side.
Such as nobody thinking about turning pro after his freshman season.
Such as four Drake starters packing GPAs of 3.0 or better, led by senior guard Emmenecker and his 3.97. His transcript contains one B and four majors: management, finance, business and entrepreneurial management.
Such as Butler countering with four starters who have earned league or school academic honors, led by senior forward Streicher. He majors in chemistry on his way to med school.
"It's a heck of a story line having these two teams play today," said Drake coach Keno Davis. "It shows you can have high academic standards and compete at a high basketball level."
Such as two 30-something rookie coaches, Davis (35) and Brad Stevens (31) of Butler. They're a combined 49-6 in their first seasons.
They're young enough that Emmenecker refers to his head coach as "Keno," and only partly because there are three Davises on the coaching staff.
"It represents one of the great things about this team," Emmenecker said. "We can be relaxed. We can have fun with the coaches."
Nobody, however, is having more fun than the head coach himself.
It's going to be over quickly. We have to enjoy the ride.
Keno is not alone. All of America wonders how Drake has become the surprise story of the year in college hoops.
Drake already has won its first Missouri Valley Conference title since 1971, and the Bulldogs are a lock for the school's first NCAA Tournament berth since '71. Before Saturday, they hadn't beaten a top-10 opponent in 26 years. They hadn't had a winning Valley record since 1986. They have finished last in the Valley 11 times since '71. It has been, by every yardstick, a bad basketball program for longer than Keno Davis has been alive.
And now everything has changed.
Drake is more than just a pretty record (24-3, 14-2 MVC). It is more than just a sassy RPI number (No. 14 before this victory). It is a team that refuses to rattle (11-2 in road/neutral games) and rarely loses poise (13-3 in games decided by 10 or fewer points).
"I thought they made timely plays," Butler coach Stevens said. "We were up four with about seven minutes to go and bang, a 9-0 run. That's who they are. That's what they do."
Drake is a team with more firepower than the average MVC squad (a league-leading 72.8 points per game) and, in fact, more firepower than last season's squad (up from a league-low 6.1 3-pointers per game in 2006-07 to 9.3 in 2007-08). It is a team with three seniors, three juniors and a sophomore doing the bulk of the work -- and enjoying it a whole lot more than in any of their previous years.
"It's going to be over quickly," Emmenecker said. "We have to enjoy the ride."
Emmenecker enjoyed Saturday despite a bunch of stitches in his right ring finger (courtesy of being stepped on in Drake's last game) and a right pinkie swollen to the size of a kielbasa at the middle knuckle.
The knuckle has been that way for, oh, five or six years, he said. Can't bend the finger into a fist at all.
But if you think that kind of thing is going to stop this guy, you don't know him. Zero Division I scholarship offers coming out of Saginaw, Mich., didn't stop him. Neither did scoring a total of six points his freshman year, or a total of 55 points his entire collegiate career before this season.
Now Emmenecker is arguably Drake's most vital player. No Bulldog has played more than his 873 minutes this season, and nobody played more than his 38 minutes Saturday. He's only fifth on the team in scoring and might be the only point guard in the country without a 3-pointer (he has attempted only one, perhaps because he's too busy with the quadruple major to get in the gym and shoot). But he's first on the team by a mile in assists and steals -- and, at 6-foot-1, he's second in rebounding.
If Emmenecker is the soul of the Bulldogs, sophomore guard Josh Young is their star. The sweet-shooting Oklahoman went for 25 on Butler, icing the game with three free throws with 30 seconds left. He leads Drake in scoring at 16.2 ppg, another big-time performer most college scouts never saw coming.
Young said he had 36 Division I scholarship offers. (His dad, Rick, puts the number at 29.) But none of them was from the Big 12 or any other BCS conference schools.
"My parents went to Oklahoma State," Young said. "That's where I saw myself playing."
The Cowboys didn't share that vision. So Young's parents, sticklers for academics, helped point him to Drake. He's a slacker compared with Emmenecker, toting a mere double major in business management and marketing.
Young, who is shooting a sizzling 46.1 percent from 3-point range, is complemented by startlingly athletic senior Leonard Houston (14 ppg), the inside presence of Cox (11.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and another in a line of shooting Korvers (Klayton, 9.4 ppg).
Together, they've done the impossible: made Drake basketball something of a big deal in Des Moines.
"We'll walk around the mall, and people will come up to us and say things," Emmenecker said. "It's especially nice for the die-hard fans who have been rooting for Drake since the '70s."
It was nice Saturday for a die-hard college hoops fan who spent all week on Kelvin Sampson watch. To someone coming out of that hell, Drake delivered in heavenly fashion.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.