DES MOINES — Drake hired men’s basketball coach Niko Medved in the offseason with the hope that he could eventually lead the Bulldogs to Missouri Valley Conference titles.
No one thought they would push for the Valley crown as early as 2018.
And yet Drake (11-8, 5-1 MVC), after an unassuming non-conference effort that included a 26-point loss to Iowa, heads to Northern Iowa tonight with a one-game lead over Loyola and Missouri State.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for the surging Bulldogs, who finished 7-24 last season under coaches Ray Giacoletti and Jeff Rutter.
“I don’t know what I expected. When I came into this job, I knew what the past was like from a record perspective. But I never tried to focus on any of that,” Medved said. “We just tried to come in and say, ‘What do we think we need to do to with this group to try to be successful?’ And to their credit, they really bought into that.”
That wasn’t the easiest thing for a veteran group to do.
The Bulldogs start four senior guards, led by star Reed Timmer. Drake has endured three straight 20-loss seasons and three different coaches over the past 14 months.
But rather than seek a new start at a new school, Drake’s older players decided to give Medved a chance.
The Bulldogs quickly took to the affable Medved, who spent four seasons at Furman before taking over at what has arguably been the toughest place in the Valley to build a consistent winner.
“He brings energy every day. Everyone buys into his system, and it’s really like a family atmosphere here,” Timmer said. “He does a really good job of instilling confidence in everybody.”
That chemistry has begun to pay off over the past few weeks, as the Bulldogs have paired their high-scoring, perimeter-driven offense with a much-improved defense.
Drake leads the Valley in scoring (77.5 points a game) and is 25th nationally with a .402 shooting percentage beyond the arc, a trend highlighted by Timmer, who is shooting 47.3 percent on 3s this season.
Still, the Bulldogs point to defense as the main reason they’ve won six of their past seven. The run includes two road wins — matching Drake’s combined total from the three previous seasons.
After letting Iowa shoot 55 percent from the floor and 31-of-49 from inside the arc in a 90-64 loss to the Hawkeyes last month, Drake’s defense has stiffened considerably.
The Bulldogs rank second in Valley games in field goal percentage defense (.425), and half their opponents have shot less than 40 percent. Medved attributes the improvement to increased effort and familiarity with his system.
“When we’re guarding better and we’re taking care of the ball, we’re finding ways to win games. I think that’s the biggest change,” Medved said. “We’ve kept it simple, and the guys have practiced really well on that end of the floor.”
Drake still has a ways to go before it can be considered the favorite to win the Valley, and like every team in the league, it knows it must win the conference tournament in March to reach the NCAA Tournament.
But the Bulldogs have at least given themselves a realistic shot at their second NCAA bid in 47 years — which was hardly an expectation when the season began.
“We’ve got to keep sticking to that, to keep trying to get better and become our best. And what I think we’re starting to find is when we do that, we can be very, very competitive in the Missouri Valley,” Medved said. “We believe we can be competitive.”