The real deal

Jason King

ST. LOUIS – Don't act surprised.

If the Drake Bulldogs make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, don't join the faction of folks who will surely label them a Cinderella. The Sweet 16, the Elite Eight – and dare we say the Final Four. The carrots are all dangling in front of Keno Davis' squad.

None of them are out of reach for the Bulldogs, who really are that good.

"You could say they've had a Cinderella season, but they're not wearing a crown and ball gown anymore," said Doug Elgin, the commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference. "This team is built to beat people."

Just ask Illinois State, which suffered the worst championship game loss in the history of the MVC tournament in Sunday's 79-49 shellacking at the Scottrade Center. Things were so lopsided that you almost had to feel sorry for Tim Jankovich's Redbirds, who were helpless against a Drake squad that looked at the basket and saw a hula-hoop.

After he and his teammates snipped away the nets from each rim, boogied to Kool and the Gang’s "Celebration" and watched a hastily produced tournament highlight video, Drake guard Adam Emmenecker talked about what lies ahead.

"Even when we're playing good teams, as long as we're playing together, there's not a school in the country that we can't beat," Emmenecker said.

The only problem with Emmenecker's statement was that a few people actually had the gall to chuckle and harrumph after he made it. I can't understand why.

The Bulldogs are headed to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1971, but they are more than just a feel-good story that used a late-season hot streak to sneak into The Dance.

Drake is a crisp, well-coached team that has enough pieces to beat traditional powers such as UCLA, North Carolina and Kansas – although it'd probably help if such opponents had an off-night.

Led by Emmenecker – the MVC Player of the Year – Drake's biggest calling card is its outside shooting. The Bulldogs made 10 of their 24 three-point attempts Sunday, and more than half of them were from 23 feet and beyond.

Even more impressive is that six Bulldogs players connected from long range, including four who made two three-pointers each.

"They're the best shooting team I've seen in 20-something years," said Jankovich, a former assistant at Kansas and Illinois. "They have more deep shooting weapons than anyone I've ever seen.

"This is a very, very talented team. People act like they're not, but I've got news for you: This is an outstanding team. I wouldn't be surprised if they made a long, long run in the NCAA tournament."

Drake is also one of the country's top teams when it comes to defense. Opponents are averaging just 60.9 points against the Bulldogs, whose one weakness might be the lack of a physical, bruising post player.

Even so, Drake might be the best Missouri Valley team in recent memory, although Southern Illinois in 2007 and Creighton in 2003 certainly belong in the conversation.

But even those squads weren't as good of a story as the Bulldogs, whose tale will surely be the focus of NCAA tournament pregame shows until they are eliminated.

Drake, 28-4, earned its first NCAA tournament berth in 37 years despite being picked to finish ninth in the MVC preseason poll. The Bulldogs posted a winning conference record for the first time since 1986 – and they did it with a first-year head coach in Davis, who took over when his father, Tom, retired after last season.

It's not as if Davis, 36, inherited a cast of players who had experienced success. Heck, just look at Drake's starting lineup.

Just two years ago Josh Young was a 143-pound high school senior who was ignored by Oklahoma State, which is near his hometown of Lawton.

Klayton Korver has battled knee problems throughout college, and senior Leonard Houston is averaging 14.2 points despite entering the season without a single career start.

A walk-on, Jonathan Cox, leads the Bulldogs in rebounds with 8.3 per game, but the most impressive player has been Emmenecker, who wasn't given a scholarship until last summer, when a player left the team to play baseball.

Emmenecker, by far the most popular Bulldog, averages 8.3 points per game. In the previous three seasons, he scored 59 points – total. Emmenecker is also quite the student. He has a quadruple major – and a 3.97 grade-point average.

Nine players on Drake's roster maintain a 3.0 or better, and it shows on the court with their decision-making and willingness to listen to Davis, a leading candidate for National Coach of the Year.

Dolph Pulliam was a member of the Drake squad that reached the 1969 Final Four under coach Maury John. Since then the Bulldogs have gone through eight coaches. At times, Pulliam said, it seemed as if Drake would never be competitive again.

"When (John) left, we didn't take care of the program," said Pulliam, one of the Bulldogs' radio analysts. "We didn't hire someone that could keep us at that level. Once we started to lose, it just spiraled downhill.

"A lot of folks said, 'Dolph, we will never get back to the NCAA tournament. We will never win the MVC again. This program will never get back to that level.' Most people had lost hope."

Now people are approaching Pulliam before each game to rub his blue, leather jacket for good fortune. Thing is, Drake doesn't need luck to beat opponents anymore. The moon doesn't have to be full and the stars don't have to align.

The Bulldogs don't cross their fingers and hope to win. For the first time in 37 years, they expect to.