Emmenecker leads Drake to improbable Missouri Valley title

ST. LOUIS -- Mike Emmenecker still keeps the unsigned letter in his desk and reads it from time to time.

When Emmenecker's son, Adam, sent in his application to Drake University, he included the letter, written by one of his teachers at Arthur Hill High School in Saginaw, Mich. Mike Emmenecker no longer remembers the teacher's name, but he'll never forget the words on the page.

Adam is comfortable being a leader if a leader is demanded and comfortable being a follower if a leader isn't required.

"He likes to do things his way, and we pretty much let him," Mike Emmenecker said as he stood on the Scottrade Center court Sunday afternoon. "He wanted to play Division I. I didn't think that was necessarily the best thing to do, but he did, and look what happened."

Emmenecker paused, choking back tears.

"He's a champion."

As "One Shining Moment" played in the background, a justifiably emotional father looked at his perpetually poised son standing on the victory podium alongside the other Drake players. After three years of being a follower, guard Adam Emmenecker couldn't look more comfortable being the leader of college basketball's most surprising team.

History is not one of Emmenecker's four majors at Drake, but he continued to rewrite it Sunday, leading the Bulldogs to a 79-49 victory over Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship. What was known for weeks became official as Drake clinched its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1971.

"A long time ago, we knew we could be special," said Emmenecker, who was named the tournament's most outstanding player after earning league MVP honors earlier in the week. "Being picked so low in the conference and having so many doubters, we probably doubted ourselves a little bit, too.

"We know what losing feels like, and we don't want that taste."

Throughout Drake's magical run, players and coaches have been refreshingly surprised by their milestones: first regular-season conference title since 1971, first postseason tournament since 1986, school-record 28 wins, first trip past the tournament semifinals, first No. 1 seed to win the event in more than a decade. But after such a convincing performance in the championship, the what and the who finally went backstage for Drake.

A long time ago, we knew we could be special. Being picked so low in the conference and having so many doubters, we probably doubted ourselves a little bit, too. We know what losing feels like, and we don't want that taste.

--Drake guard Adam Emmenecker

It was all about the how. Drake's 30-point win marked the largest ever in a Valley title game.

"I'm more surprised at how we did it," sophomore guard Josh Young said. "You couldn't convince anybody on our team that we were going to lose this game today."

That much became clear minutes into the game, when Drake scored 19 unanswered points, swishing 3-pointers from every angle and flummoxing Illinois State's offense. The Redbirds scored just 10 points in the final 15:54 of the opening half, looking clueless against Drake's zone.

Former walk-ons Emmenecker and Jonathan "Bucky" Cox hooked up for a 3-pointer that capped a 22-2 run to close the first half. Despite a roster that includes only two players (Cox and Brent Heemskerk) taller than 6-foot-6, the Bulldogs dominated the bigger Redbirds inside, holding a 34-22 edge in rebounds.

Drake's post toughness will be questioned in the coming weeks, but not on Sunday.

"It might be the No. 1 key for us," first-year coach Keno Davis said. "When we're undersized and we're playing a lot of shooters and we don't have a physical presence inside, can you rebound? For us to hold our own, I was incredibly proud of our team."

The Bulldogs' colossal burst to close the first half made the second half largely irrelevant, as they stretched their lead to 33. With 1:06 left in the game, Davis signaled for timeout and sent in freshman walk-ons Kit Avery and Tyson Dirks.

"It's a pretty good feeling because I was in that same position my first couple years," said Cox, who had game highs in points (20) and rebounds (7). "Now to be in the position I am right now, it's unbelievable."

Klayton Korver knows the feeling. After Friday's quarterfinal win against Indiana State, Korver spoke of how he'd seen his older brother, Kyle, cut down nets and parade "Missouri Valley Champs" signs after leading Creighton to two tournament titles.

Barely 48 hours later, Klayton was distributing shreds of netting to his teammates in the locker room.

"I've wanted to do this forever," he said. "I'm just glad I got the chance to."

Few savored Sunday's scene as much as Dolph Pulliam, a member of Drake's 1969 Final Four team who serves as a radio analyst for the school.

Part team ambassador and part fashion icon, Pulliam links Drake's past and present. Fifty minutes before tip-off, fans couldn't keep their hands off Pulliam, whose blue leather suit has become a magnet for the masses.

"Fans kept coming down wanting to touch the leather, so finally the usher got tired of holding people back," Pulliam said. "Then he says, 'Fella, are you running for mayor of Des Moines or something?"

Pulliam purchased the suit three years ago and used to sport it for a game or two. But before Drake's game at Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Nov. 24, Davis asked the legend to wear it.

After the Bulldogs won, Davis asked Pulliam to go leather until the team lost. Nineteen games later, the suit still fit.

"Leather does not breathe, folks," Pulliam said. "It's hot in that suit."

Not as hot as the Bulldogs, who won their fourth consecutive game Sunday. Illinois State also entered the title game on a roll, having won six straight and eight of nine, but stalled out in the first turn.

Did the blowout loss cool the Redbirds' NCAA hopes?

"We're pretty strong," coach Tim Jankovich said, "but if [the selection committee is] just going to look at this and make that a big part of it, that will obviously hurt us."

The common contention is that the Valley has fallen from its 2006 perch, when four teams reached the tournament and two (Bradley and Wichita State) went to the Sweet 16. A new set of teams sits atop the conference standings -- perennial power Southern Illinois left the tournament before the weekend -- but different doesn't necessarily mean worse.

"I cannot imagine this league getting [just] one team in," commissioner Doug Elgin said. "I don't think we're down. The key to our success the last couple years was that the bottom of our league was so very strong.

"Now a team that finishes [seventh] and loses four starters suddenly comes out of nowhere and dominates. That's what Drake's done, dominated."

And Drake isn't done, either.

"We can do a lot of good things," Adam Emmenecker said. "We figured out today that the sky's the limit."

Adam Rittenberg covers college football and college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.