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Oakland notebook: The Pride of Peoria

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The ball was loose, so the kid did what came instinctively. He dove for the ball.

For his aggressiveness, there was a price.

"I saw his tooth flying across the floor," Dave Snell, the longtime Bradley basketball play-by-play announcer, told Yahoo! Sports on Monday. "They took him to the hospital."

Within an hour, the kid, Jim Les, was back on the floor. But the most revealing part of the story is that the incident took place in practice.

Les was the starting point guard on the 1985-86 Bradley Braves that lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to eventual national champion Louisville.

"That was the kind of intangible player he was," Snell recalled. "He had incredible drive, with an endless amount of energy."

Trevor Trimpe, 40, remembers that day, as well. He was the team's starting small forward, and Les' roommate. If there were a Jim Les Fan Club, he could be president.

"He had a work ethic that was never matched," said Trimpe, a sales manager for a packing company in St. Louis. "Jim was a very hard-nosed player."

Neither is surprised that the 5-foot-11 Les, who won a national award for being the best college player under six feet tall, became a coach and turned out to be a successful one. Les, in his fourth year as Bradley's head coach, leads the Braves into the Sweet 16 on Thursday in Oakland.

But dating back to the 1985-86 season, when he was named Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, Les had already established himself as a leader.

"He was the coach on the floor," Snell said.

Added Trimpe: "He led by example (and was) a very intelligent player and a very intelligent person."

The 1985-86 team was extremely talented, with future NBA standout Hersey Hawkins as the shooting guard, Mike Williams at center and Trimpe and Donald Powell as the forwards. The team, which won 22 games in a row before losing in the Missouri Valley Conference final to Tulsa, was recently inducted in the school's Hall of Fame. The Braves finished 32-3 and were ranked 14th in the final Associated Press poll.

"They beat a lot of very good teams," Snell said. "They got a bad draw."

The Braves, coached by Dick Versace, were seeded seventh in the West Regional. If they had beaten Tulsa to secure the conference's automatic bid, they almost certainly would have been seeded higher and perhaps avoided the early matchup against Louisville.

Yet the game against the second-seeded Cardinals was within their grasp. With just under nine minutes remaining, the teams were tied at 55, but then Louisville, which was led by Pervis Ellison, pulled away. Hawkins finished with 22 points, while Les contributed 15.

The big difference in the game was depth. Only six Braves saw action, while Cardinals coach Denny Crum put in one substitute after another. "They had 12 high school All-Americans," Trimpe said. "They were so deep. That's why they won the title."

Still, there are so many memories from that season. Trimpe said he's spoken to several former teammates and is considering making the trip to Oakland for Thursday's game against Memphis. He said he sent a text message to Les soon after the Pittsburgh victory and hoped to talk to him Monday night.

Peoria, Ill., of course, is pretty pumped about the current group of Braves.

"This is off the charts," Snell said. "I knew they were a pretty good team," but until facing tough non-conference opponents, "you always wonder how you're going to stack up."

Les, 42, who attended Notre Dame High in Niles, Ill., played one full season at Cleveland State before transferring to Bradley. His brother, Tom, had been a guard for the Braves in the early 1970s. After Bradley, Les played seven seasons in the NBA.

He overcame skeptics throughout his career. He wasn't supposed to be big enough to play Division I college basketball, and he wasn't supposed to make it in the NBA.

He wasn't supposed to be the right fit for Bradley, either. With no head coaching experience – Les had been an assistant coach for three years with the WNBA's Sacramento Monarchs – there were those who didn't agree with the selection.

"It doesn't matter what he does," Trimpe said. "He'll be successful."

Michael Arkush, a freelance writer and author of eight books based in Virginia, is covering the Oakland regional exclusively for Yahoo! Sports.