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Bradley, we hardly knew ye: NCAA tourney will go on with or without ‘local’ fave

Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye #23 of the Bradley Braves celebrates with fans after beating the Northern Iowa Panthers during the final game of the MVC Basketball Tournament at the Enterprise Center on March 10, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Bradley Braves beat the Northern Iowa Panthers 57-54 to win the MVC Championship. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

This should be Bradley basketball’s finest hour since it last made the NCAA Tournament in 2006.

Instead, it’s amateur hour.

Such a strange weekend it was for the Braves and what — after some seriously disturbing news broke Friday night — could easily be characterized as their big baby of a coach, Brian Wardle, and their bumbling, small-time, in-over-its-head athletic department.

In a nutshell, because this has made the rounds by now: A Bradley beat writer of three decades had his access restricted because it was determined that his coverage wasn’t rah-rah enough; it didn’t “promote the Bradley brand.” This led to a tidal wave of criticism from media from all around the country. Utterly shamed, Bradley made the inevitable decision to restore the reporter’s full access.

Yet the damage to “the brand” had already been done.

After the Braves’ surprise run to the Missouri Valley tournament title, the story should’ve been about how this was the state of Illinois’ only team in the Big Dance. College fans around these parts might not have a pot to piddle in this season, but hey! Check out our newest, bestest pals from Peoria!

Some of us might’ve been excited to recount the details of that surprising trip 13 years ago to the Sweet 16, which included a giant upset of Kansas. Maybe we’d have been ready to fall in love with Bradley like we did so unforgettably a year ago with Loyola.

Instead … nah. Not that we’re speaking for everybody here. You want to root like heck for the Braves? You do you. But if the No. 15 seed Braves should happen to get their brand ripped clear off by No. 2 seed Michigan State on Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa, oh well.

Big Ten’s Big Two

First things first: Michigan State has to take a long bow after its thrilling 65-60 comeback victory over rival Michigan in Sunday’s Big Ten tournament title game at the United Center.

As they have so many times before over the last 20 years, the Spartans proved they’re cut from a different cloth than the teams they compete against. This time, they summoned amazing courage and will after a scary ankle injury to Kyle Ahrens, who was taken off the floor on a stretcher in the first half. The Wolverines went up double figures over what had already been a shorthanded MSU team, but Tom Izzo’s players refused to be beaten.

“I’ve never been prouder of a team in my life,” Izzo said. “Coaches say that every time after they win, and, year after year, I’ve had some incredible teams and incredible guys. But what these guys have been through, nobody will ever know.”

Point guard Cassius Winston is not to be trifled with. Senior shooter Matt McQuaid made one clutch shot after another and finished with 27 points in the finale. Still … sorry, but it’s hard to see these Spartans going far in the Big Dance. Deeper, more talented MSU teams than this one failed to make it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Maybe Michigan, which also got a No. 2 seed? The Wolverines don’t have the same high level of frontcourt athleticism they’ve had before, and that really showed in three — count ’em, three — losses to the Spartans.

Maybe Purdue, a No. 3? Longtime coach Matt Painter has never been past the Sweet 16. Maybe Wisconsin, a No. 4? You have uncles and aunts with more spring in their legs than the Badgers have.

It’s going to be a tough go for the league of leaders and legends.

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HOT TAKES

1. Seeds of discontent: It’s kind of a joke that three No. 1 seeds went to ACC teams (Duke, Virginia, North Carolina) and yet Michigan State — which won regular-season and postseason titles — didn’t clear that bar with the selection committee. And that’s true even if the Spartans would be underdogs against any of the above ACC powers.

2. Rock, squawk, Jayhawk: Why does Kansas get to play in Kansas City, Mo. — essentially at home — if it advances to the Midwest Regional? Did the committee fail to notice that Kansas has had, by its own lofty standards, a terrible season? Some programs just seem to catch every possible break. Bill Self’s team should’ve been put in another region.

3. Who knew? A Louisville-Minnesota matchup in Round 1? The Cardinals against a Gophers team coached by Rick Pitino’s very own son? If you believe the committee doesn’t secretly delight in some of these PR-friendly “coincidences,” well, congrats on not being terminally cynical.