DES MOINES — Darian DeVries spoke to a somewhat skeptical audience inside St. Louis’ Missouri Athletic Club ballroom last September.
A group of Missouri Valley Conference beat writers, sports information directors and coaches would eventually project the Aplington native and former Northern Iowa basketball player’s rebuilt Drake roster to place ninth in his first season as the Bulldogs’ head coach.
“I feel like we’re in a position this year where we can be competitive right away,” DeVries said back then. “What that means in terms of do we finish first or eighth or ninth or whatever, I don’t know how that will play out. But I do know that we have a group that is very confident that they can compete every night and see where the wins and losses stack up at the end of the year.”
Today’s 3 p.m. game at UNI marks a homecoming for DeVries. Friends and family members will make the short drive to the McLeod Center to see the coach who once was a part of back-to-back Class A state championship teams at Aplington before joining Eldon Miller’s college roster.
The oldest of five siblings who all played collegiate athletics, Darian and his NFL-bound brother, Jared, helped the Bill Dohrn-coached Aplington Panthers average 98 points for an entire season en route to defeating a Winfield-Mount Union team that featured Jess Settles in the 1992 state championship. They extended a win streak to 74 in the first year of a merger with Parkersburg. Eventual Kansas star Raef LaFrentz’s MFL/Mar-Mac team served as the roadblock to a third title.
Dohrn’s style of play stuck with DeVries.
“I always carried that philosophy with me,” DeVries said. “We played a pretty wide open style in high school and enjoyed playing it.
“It was something you always thought about if you get an opportunity to be a head coach someday that’s what we would do.”
That dream of taking over a college program lingered for two decades. DeVries was the longest-tenured men’s basketball assistant coach at one school in the nation, working for Dana Altman and eventually Greg McDermott for 20 years on their staffs at Creighton.
Niko Medved’s sudden departure to Colorado State finally opened a head coaching door for DeVries, who was hired by Drake in late March. He moved into his youngest brother Jay’s Des Moines basement and went to work.
“I just wanted to make sure it was the right opportunity whenever the time came,” DeVries said. “I was in a great spot at Creighton and my family really enjoyed it. … I didn’t take just any opportunity, I took an opportunity that I could jump all-in on.”
Quickly, DeVries hit the recruiting trail. Transfers and graduation had depleted Drake’s roster to just three returning scholarship players with 6-foot-8 forward Nick McGlynn the only starter.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” McGlynn said. “Having a new coach for your senior year is definitely something you don’t expect, but I feel like Coach DeVries made it pretty easy for me to be rest assured that nothing has changed in terms of our goals.”
DeVries’ first acquisition was graduate transfer Nick Norton – son of UAB women’s basketball coach Randy Norton, who played basketball and baseball at the University of Iowa – and a player he previously tried to recruit to Creighton. Brady Ellingson then came on board from Iowa, looking to carve out a larger role.
DeVries added twins Tremell and Anthony Murphy, along with their junior college teammate, D.J. Wilkins. Their former Florida Southwestern coach and Waterloo native Marty Richter later joined Drake’s staff.
By April, the rookie head coach had an older nucleus that he eventually added to with international athletes and freshmen. Through bowling, slowpitch softball games and community service activities, the group came together over the summer.
Others took notice.
“The way that they refilled that roster and built that thing in the spring was impressive,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said.
With Norton running the point, Drake compiled a program-record 11 wins prior to the start of conference play and owned the best record of any league team. Adversity struck on opening night in the MVC when Norton suffered a season-ending ACL injury during a double-overtime loss to Evansville. Norton had 82 assists versus 24 turnovers and was averaging 14 points a game.
Sophomore Noah Thomas has stepped up in Norton’s absence, erupting for 24 points Tuesday as Drake handed an experienced Southern Illinois team its first league loss, 82-70.
“I brought him in and met with him and told him, I just wanted him to play free and we’d do everything we could to simplify things for him,” DeVries said of Thomas. “Be aggressive, go be you, play confident and have some fun with it.”
The manner in which his former coaches Miller and Hall of Fame prep football coach Ed Thomas molded athletes into becoming better men is something DeVries has tried to carry into his career. The fun of playing in Dohrn’s high-scoring offense also remains.
This year’s Drake team leads the MVC with an average of 80.8 points per game.
“It was an easy transfer over as we try to set our culture and what we want our program to be about in terms of style of play,” said DeVries, who was also part of a high-scoring system at Creighton. “This league makes you earn things in the half-court, but it will be a battle of wills every night to see if we can get established the way we like to play.”