The usual schools remain standing as the NCAA men's basketball tournament rolls through its second week. We have Connecticut, Villanova, Florida, Georgetown, Duke, UCLA, blah, blah, blah, and Bradley. Bradley. What is Bradley?
Turns out, this notable institution was founded in 1897 as Bradley Polytechnic Institute. The widow Bradley (Lydia Moss Bradley to you) dedicated it to her departed husband, Tobias, who left the planet 30 years earlier. Lydia wanted to "found a school where young people could learn how to do practical things to prepare them for living in the modern world."
And what better way to begin than the way Lydia did, by buying a majority stake in that LaParte, Indiana, academy of scholarship, the Parsons Horological School, forever celebrated as the first school for watchmakers in the United States. After Lydia gained control, she did the sensible thing and moved Parsons Horological to Peoria where it began its butterfly transformation into Bradley Polytechnic Institute, which became a college in 1920 and university in 1946.
This is how babies are made.
Today, Bradley University has 5369 undergraduate students and 785 graduate students; about the size of University of San Diego. Tuition runs a little over $18,000.
The university is located in Peoria, which, for the geographical curious, is a town that lies east of West Peoria and west of East Peoria, in the grand state of Illinois, midway between Chicago and St. Louis. Bradley is a small college in a static city. The population of Peoria in 1940 was 105,000, climbed to 124,000 by 1980, and fell back to 112,000 in 2000.
Bradley University, for readers who have not been watching the tournament, is a 13th-seed that beat 4th seed Kansas and 5th seed Pittsburgh in order to qualify for the third round for the first time in 51 years. The Braves barely made the tournament this year, was the next-to-last team invited. And, no wonder, the team finished tied for fifth in the (not-a-household-name) Missouri Valley Conference. In fact, conference rivals Missouri State and Creighton were not invited, and they ended conference play with better records than Bradley. The Braves got in because they finished the season strong, winning eight of their last ten games.
The Braves play number-one seed Memphis Thursday night at the Oakland Arena and will be run over. The Braves are regarded as this year's novelty school. But, it wasn't always this way. There was a time when Bradley was a mover and a shaker in college basketball.
We'll start in the 1929--30 season, when the Braves won the Illinois Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Eight years later, after Bradley had won 40 consecutive games against conference opponents, they were invited to the inaugural 1938 National Invitation Tournament (NIT). The Braves lost in the first round and ended their season at 18-2. Next year was better. They went 19-3 and received an invitation to the NIT and an invitation to the first NCAA basketball tournament.
In those days, the NIT was considered the more prestigious tournament. The NIT played in New York City, at Madison Square Garden. The NCAA held its tournament in Evanston, Illinois. Where would you want to play?
Turns out, Bradley has been in the top tier of American collegiate basketball for decades. That small school has played in the following NCAA tournaments: 1950, 1954, 1955, 1980, 1986, 1988, 1996, 2006, and made the Final Four in 1950 and 1954. Bradley appeared in the NIT in 1938, '39, 1947, '49, 1950, '57, '58, '59, 1960, '62, '64, '65, '68, 1982, '85, 1994, '95, '97, '99, and 2001, winning the trophy four times.
Other than the unfortunate point-shaving scandal of 1950 (three Bradley players pled guilty to accepting bribes, conniving to keep their team's score below the point spread), Bradley has played exceptional basketball for decades. They played pretty good in 1950, too, finishing second in the National Invitation Tournament and second in the NCAA tournament.
I'll jump to the Big Picture.
San Diego State made it to the NIT twice, in 1982 and 2003. SDSU has been to the NCAA basketball tournament five times and never won a game. The university has 26,000 undergraduates and 6000 graduate students vs. Bradley's 5300 and 800. SDSU averaged 7172 fans per home game last year. Bradley averaged 9338 fans. San Diego's population is 1,300,000 vs. Peoria's 118,000.
The unremitting incompetence of San Diego State basketball is absolutely astounding. They have fielded mediocrity year after year, decade after decade. SDSU is on the main line, in the big time, snuggled in rich, sunny Southern California between beaches and mountains, and can't figure out how to out-recruit the likes of Bradley. Can't figure it out over the course of three generations.
Mayhap, we've entered a new era; coach Fisher has taken the Aztecs to the NCAAs twice in seven years. Maybe this is the beginning of something good. Maybe, but that's not the way to bet.