Bradley's basketball recruiting class is filled. Here's how the new players fit in
PEORIA — The Bradley Braves found the pieces for their roster re-tooling project.
"Now, it's about putting the puzzle together," said Bradley coach Brian Wardle, as his team navigated the NCAA transfer portal to help fill some of its four open roster spots for the 2022-23 men's basketball season.
"The portal recruiting is like speed-dating," Wardle said. "Well, we filled our roster, so we broke up with the portal. We're done. Now it's about building a team."
Here is a look at the four players brought in by Bradley, how they fit into the program and how they will mesh with the returning Braves players.
Who did Bradley basketball bring in?
Bradley signed the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Goanar Biliew last week as its final newcomer. He joins a recruiting class that includes point guard James "Pop" Weathers, point guard Cody "Duke" Deen and wing Christian Davis.
"Recruiting in the portal can be tricky," Wardle said. "Credit to my staff for all the research and film and effort. I would call all four of our new players unselfish, guys who have all made their programs better and won. They understand our roster, where the team is at, and that we're returning a really good group of 11 guys.
"But wherever Duke and Pop and Christian and G have been, they have made their teams better."
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All four newcomers have three years of eligibility left. And all four have been in college for two years already.
Why these four are Braves
Pop Weathers: The 6-foot point guard was ranked No. 62 in the top 100 prospects by JucoRecruiting.com. He was the only NJCAA Division I player in the nation to average 15 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals in 2021-22 at State College of Florida.
"Pop is another guy we've been tracking for a while, watched him play against Terry Roberts two or three times," Wardle said. "He can get to the paint and cause problems, and he can shoot from deep range."
Duke Deen: The 5-foot-9 guard was Sunbelt Conference Freshman of the Year last season for Troy, and played for Panola College before that.
"Duke has a swagger to him that we fell in love with," Wardle said. "We watched him when he was at Panola and had interest in him since then. We're excited to get him now. I've had very good success with smaller-sized guards in the past."
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Christian Davis: A 6-foot-7 wing, Davis played NCAA Division II ball at Le Moyne last season and shot 42.7% from the field and 91.3% from the free throw line, while adding 31 assists, 28 steals and 26 blocks in 27 games. He scored in double figures in 19-of-27 outings.
"Davis was one of those portal guys we got excited about," Wardle said. "This kid can really shoot it. He's grown 5 inches in the last two years. He has a great family background and he fits well with us."
Goanar Biliew: A 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward from the Sudan who brings power and athleticism to the front line from elite junior college program Des Moines Area Community College. He was part of a team that went 49-13 during his two years and won the NJCAA Division II national championship in 2021 and reached the Final Four in 2022.
"He was 275 pounds in high school, worked so hard to get himself into where he is at today," Wardle said. "That forward position, all spring, was very tough to find guys who really wanted to buy in.
"Guys wanted to start, wanted to play 35 minutes. Goanar could play at 3, 4 or 5. He is willing to do anything, just wants to get on the floor in any role we give him and help our team."
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How does it all fit together?
The Braves return guards Zek Montgomery, Max Ekono, Connor Hickman and Ville Tahvanainen. They also bring back forwards Ja'Shon Henry, Rienk Mast, Malevy Leons, Darius Hannah and Connor Linke. And they have walk-ons Cade Hardtke and Sam Hennessy.
So who is likely to walk out on the floor opening night in a starting five? Well, Hickman is in there. So are Mast and Leons. That trio started last season.
The point guard job might go first to Deen, who played a year of D-I ball at Troy. Zek Montgomery might be ready to slide in at wing. The Braves could start Henry instead, or bring him off the bench.
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A second group with Henry and Tahvanainen could be nasty, and end up playing starters minutes anyway.
"No way to know what the roles will be right now," Wardle said. "We have to get everyone together over the summer and begin the process of building the team. There's a long way to go."
The four newcomers join a program that returns nine letter-winners and three starters from a 2021-22 team that finished 17-14 overall and an 11-7 mark in the Missouri Valley Conference — the latter tied for the program's most wins in Valley play in the last 21 seasons.
"Our ball-handling and decision-making is better," said Wardle, when asked how the four newcomers have changed the team from last season. "I love Duke's and Pop's ability to handle the ball. Christian and Duke helps our shooting. Goanar can guard multiple positions and is very strong.
"We're just trying to find guys who understand our culture and the importance of winning."
Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers Bradley men's basketball, the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.