Depleted Braves not yet at point of no return

Kirk Wessler

In the spirit of the holiday season, we'll start with the most positive thing to come out of Bradley's 59-46 loss to Northern Iowa on Saturday afternoon.

That would be the stand-up honesty of Bradley freshman Sam Maniscalco, when asked to assess his first start as the Braves' point guard.

'I obviously didn't play well enough for us to win,' Maniscalco said. 'Point guards are, in my opinion, measured on 'Ws.' Not stats, but wins and losses. We didn't get that win today.'

So forget about the team-high 15 points Maniscalco scored, and that he was the only Braves player in double digits. Forget he made half of his 10 shots, including 3 of 8 from 3-point range when the rest of the team shot 27 percent overall and 14 percent from behind the arc. Forget he helped forge Bradley's rally from an 18-point deficit with a fearless drive for an off-hand layup over UNI's Eric Coleman, an all-Missouri Valley post who has six inches, 55 pounds and three years of Division I experience on him.

Forget, too, that BU coach Jim Les called Maniscalco and Rashad Austin, a junior transfer who logged the first minutes of non-garbage time in his career here, 'bright spots' in an otherwise forgettable game.

The bottom line is the final score.

Except it's not. At least, not now.

The Braves' hopes of being a strong at-large candidate for the NCAA tournament field went out the window with a 7-5 nonconference record, a disappointing ledger that mostly was compiled before fifth-year senior point guard Daniel Ruffin first strained his abdomen.

The Braves' odds of winning the regular-season MVC title grew longer than Pinocchio's nose Friday, when Ruffin underwent out-patient surgery to repair a sports hernia. He could be out for the better part of two months.

Winning at least 13 or 14 of their remaining 17 Valley games — isn't impossible. But it's unlikely.

So Bradley's postseason hopes now pretty much boil down to being the best team on the court for three or four days in St. Louis, at the MVC tournament in March, by which time Ruffin should be back to his all-conference self.

That makes the bottom line for Bradley getting better over these next few weeks. Getting better in ways it hadn't been since early December: defensively, rebounding, developing an interior scoring threat.

Maniscalco's performance was a long way from perfect. It's all well and good that a point guard scores points, or even leads his team in scoring. But he had zero assists, to go with three turnovers. That will not do.

'I'm not trying to be Daniel,' Maniscalco said. 'I'm out there to play my game and become a little bit of a leader, to get the ball moving and get everybody going.'

He showed signs of being able to do that Saturday. Good signs. He hasn't shown enough for anyone to predict stardom. But he's obviously a smart kid with solid game.

The thing Maniscalco said he has learned most from Ruffin is the importance of making his teammates better.

'You can definitely see that out there, watching him play,' Maniscalco said.

In the two games where Ruffin was basically unable to play, it has become painfully obvious Bradley is a different team without him. Even with Ruffin, the Braves had been slow coming together with more than half the active roster being newbies to D-I ball, but they were still a good team. With Ruffin on the bench, they've now endured consecutive, double-digit home losses for the first time since January 2004. And they're not good.

A lot of focus will be on Maniscalco, because the ball will be in his hands so much. But the responsibility is not all his. Guard Jeremy Crouch and post Matt Salley, team tri-captains with Ruffin, need to step up. Ditto, sophomore guard Andrew Warren. And the new guys have to become consistent producers, sooner rather than later.

When Ruffin went to New Jersey for surgery by specialist Dr. Andrew Boyarsky, his teammates were told he wouldn't be playing for a while and they'd have to suck it up in his absence.

Les, however, was less than honest with the public about Ruffin's status. On Friday afternoon, Les told a Journal Star reporter he probably wouldn't know Ruffin's status until Saturday. When pressed, the coach refused to rule out Ruffin as a possible participant in the game.

Maybe Les was simply in denial. Maybe he was trying to keep UNI off guard, so to speak, though given the nature of the injury, Panthers coach Ben Jacobson wasn't surprised Ruffin didn't play.

Whatever. When it comes to standing up to the truth, Les could learn a thing or two from his freshman point guard.

KIRK WESSLER is Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. Contact him at (309) 686-3216 or