If it's still true that what plays in Peoria can play anywhere, then the Bradley Braves represent the hottest new concept in college basketball. The formula begins with one smart-as-the-devil coach with an angel-hair perm and includes a starting lineup without a player over 6'8". After 18 days of preseasoning on the courts and beaches of Italy last summer, the Braves opened in Peoria, Ill. in November and, presto, what you have in February is one of the nation's winningest teams.
Last Saturday's 79-59 rout of Creighton at Peoria's Carver Arena was Bradley's 14th straight victory and 23rd overall against a single loss, to Clemson, in the Rainbow Classic in December. Six of the Braves' wins have been by two points or less, including three in overtime. The most sensational victories occurred within 48 hours of each other last month against Drake and Dayton. In each of those games 6'3" sophomore guard Hersey Hawkins caught full-court inbounds passes from his 5'11" backcourt mate Jim Les with one second on the clock and hit buzzer-beating jumpshots.
Skeptics might attribute such finishes, indeed Bradley's gaudy record, to a combination of luck, the weakness of its Missouri Valley Conference opponents and a nonleague schedule highlighted by two-point wins over relatively ordinary Marquette and Villanova. But from one look at the team it's clear that coach Dick Versace (rhymes with "her face") has the Braves playing with uncommon poise, selecting shots carefully and making few turnovers, while limiting opponents to .438 shooting. And for all the Chicago blood on the team—seven players are from the Windy City—the only remnants of the playgrounds are the occasional kaboom dunks that Bradley crowds delight in.
"Bradley's a Top 10 team," says Tony Barone, the first-year Creighton coach who was Versace's assistant for the last seven years in Peoria. "The way they play in close games, I really feel they can beat anybody. They seem to have, the chemistry that demands a win."
And there's no question that the winning is perking up Peoria. That blue-collar city of 124,000 has fallen on hard times. Cutbacks at the Caterpillar Tractor Company and other large businesses have cost thousands of Peorians their jobs. But things are slowly turning around. Says Mayor Jim Maloof, "The more Bradley wins, the less we will hear, 'Where the hell is Peoria?' I would like to do for Peoria what Dick Versace has done for Bradley basketball."
When Versace arrived at Bradley from Jackson (Mich.) Community College in 1978, basketball glory was but a dim and distant memory, dating back to the Famous Five of the late '30s and Chet (The Jet) Walker's teams of the early '60s. The Braves hadn't been in the NCAA tournament since 1955, the NIT since 1968. Within two years, Versace had the team in the NCAAs, and he capped the 1981-82 season with an NIT championship.
But Versace's style was hardly in the staid Bradley tradition. He would curse loudly during games and grab players by their jerseys when he felt they weren't hustling. In a game against San Francisco at the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii in December 1981, he pulled the whistle off a referee and flung it into the stands.
Though he was winning, many Bradley administrators and Peorians of influence felt Versace was indulging in conduct unbecoming a basketball legacy, even an outdated one. To that, Versace's answer was, "You hired a new coach, not a new pope." After a 16-13 season in '82-83 and a 15-13 season in '83-84, he was not shocked to read in the Peoria Journal-Star that unnamed sources said he would not be offered a contract after the '84-85 season. But Versace won a stay by toning down his sideline manner and going 17-13 with eight freshmen last season, climaxing with a win over archrival Illinois State. Many fans wore KEEP VERSACE buttons to the game that day.
Versace gets much of his spirit from his mother, Tere, a sculptor and author who wrote the book on which the television series The Flying Nun was based.
And Versace's determination rubs off on his players. After being ignored as a high school senior in Niles, Ill., Les battled to build his body and improve his shot. As a result he is averaging 14.1 points and 8.2 assists per game and is a leading candidate for the Frances Naismith-Hall of Fame Award, presented each year to the nation's best player under 6 feet. For his part, Hawkins has resisted the temptation to use his terrific talent and leaping ability for his own amusement. He could easily raise his 19.8 points per game average if Versace's team concept hadn't been drilled into him so well. "I know I can do more, but it's better if I hold it in reserve until we need it," he says. "That's when I can feel the team say, 'Give it to the Hawk.' "
And Bradley's 6'8", 255-pound center, massive Mike Williams, has outplayed taller men all season, averaging 13.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Williams was a particularly important contributor during the Braves' 18-day trip to Italy. When the team bus could not get through a narrow street in the town of Porto San Giorgio, Williams got out and simply lifted cars onto the sidewalk like so many coffee tables.
Assistant coach Tommy Massimino, son of Villanova's head man, Rollie, knows a Cinderella story when he's in one. "This team has a chemistry like my dad's team had last year," he says. "Something special could happen."
Now that would play—in Peoria or anywhere else.