Braves go from Valley periphery to Sweet 16

In a conference that spent the season on the periphery of the nation's basketball radar, Bradley was the afterthought, the team that was always just outside the conversation.

Two months ago, the Braves were headed back home to Peoria, Ill., licking their wounds after a 80-76 come-from-ahead loss at Creighton. After letting a 10-point halftime lead slip away in five quick minutes and foundering down the stretch, Bradley had a 3-5 record in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Braves were faced with bleak postseason prospects, wasted potential and a seeming inability to win on the road. Even as pundits effused about a "four-bid Valley," Bradley was never one of the teams mentioned.

"We weren't finishing games," said head coach Jim Les, who was a Bradley ball boy in the mid-1970s and the team's point guard in the mid-1980s. "There were stretches where we just shut down during the stretch, especially on the road."

But that was a very distant then, and this is a very real now. After two upsets over two traditional powers of college basketball, the 13th-seeded Braves are among the last 16 teams standing for the first time since 1954, when Forddy Anderson led the little school all the way to the national title game.

According to Les, the turning point of the season came while on the road on Feb. 22 at Northern Iowa, against a Panthers team that had been nationally ranked a week before and had been streaking toward the conference title. With a dominant display of devastating defense and 60 percent shooting, the Braves won 71-48 and claimed their first road victory of the year against the league's elite.

"It was [UNI's] senior night, they had everything going for them," Les said. "But we came in and played very well. To me, that confirmed we were a good basketball team, that we could finish on the road. That win earned us the Valley's respect, and that's when the team earned my respect."

They've only lost once since that stirring victory in Cedar Falls -- in the league tournament title game against Southern Illinois -- and four of those five wins have come away from home. Along the way, the Braves have gained the respect of fans and media across the country.

The last time the Braves were this close to the national title, 6-foot-4 Dick "Mr. Rebound" Estergard patrolled the paint and grabbed a rebound nearly every minute. But this time, Bradley has someone much taller: 7-foot NBA prospect Patrick O'Bryant, who averages 13.2 points and 8.4 boards per game.

But this game's touted matchup of true centers didn't really pan out: Pitt's own 7-footer, Aaron Gray, fought foul trouble and frustration all game long, and spent 18 minutes of the game watching longingly as O'Bryant had the paint to himself. Bradley's mammoth Minnesotan scored a game-high 28 points on 10-for-17 shooting, and was only whistled once.

"That was my A-game right there," O'Bryant said afterward. "I think I played a great game, and I think we played a great game as a team, stopping them on defense and doing what it took to win."

"We knew we could guard them, if we just worked on their tendencies and made them go to their weaknesses," said senior forward Marcellus Sommerville, who finished with 18 points and six rebounds. "We know they were scoreless for a while and that was definitely a confidence builder."

When the game was over, the Braves' center went up into the stands and celebrated the Sweet 16 berth with the Bradley faithful. They hadn't had the customary full two days to celebrate the first-round win, as the Braves played Sunday's early game after playing the late game Friday, but they'll have five full days to savor this one before facing 1-seed Memphis for an Elite Eight spot.

"It was a great feeling," O'Bryant said. "Those fans have been with us all year and we wouldn't have been able to do it without them and without their help and support and their cheering and getting into the other teams' heads. ... So it was a great feeling to go up there and thank them all for their support."

Those fans have been on quite a ride, from conference afterthought to regional semifinalist. And that's the type of conference the Valley is: Even the afterthoughts are capable of major NCAA Tournament damage.

"In the MVC, we don't have the budget or resources that Pitt or Kansas has," Les said. "But we have awfully good players, and great coaches, and communities that love basketball."

"Here's a rhetorical question," echoed Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin. "What does it say about a league whose fifth-place team beat Kansas, then beat Pitt? A team that that controlled the tempo and beat two heavyweights? It says there must be quality, it says it must be deep."

Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a daily contributor to ESPN.com.