Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
It’s safe to say expectations have never been higher for the Drexel Dragons.
That’s what happens when a 29-win team returns 82 percent of its scoring, 77 percent of its rebounding and 85 percent of its minutes. The league’s media and coaches picked Drexel to win the Colonial Athletic Association for the second consecutive year, which didn’t catch anybody by surprise–nor did point guard Frantz Massenat’s selection as preseason Player of the Year. In a mid-major league that’s been historically dominated by Southern powers Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion and George Mason, the attention that’s been showered on Drexel this season might still be a little new, but it certainly wasn’t surprising.
“When you had the type of season that you had the year before and you bring a lot of people back, the expectations are gonna be high and your expectations of yourself should be high,” Drexel coach Bruiser Flint, now in his 12th year at the helm of the Dragons, told CoBL on Friday. “I don’t know if you want to call it a sense of urgency; I think we know that we left some things undone that we really wanted to accomplish–although we did have a really great season.”
(Dragon Primer: For a note-by-note breakdown of the Drexel season, click here)
The 29 wins the Dragons collected were the most for any team in the CAA since a junior 7-footer named David Robinson led Navy to 30 wins and an Elite Eight appearance in 1986. A 19-game streak from January 4 to March 5 had Drexel ranked in the top 30 of both the AP and Coaches’ polls, and they’re once again in the “receiving votes” category as the calendar rolls into 2012-13.
Now, though, it’s about going from a “great” season to a “special” season–and there’s only one way to make that happen.
“We want to get to the NCAA tournament,” Flint said. “We know the easiest way to get to the NCAA tournament is winning the (Colonial Athletic Association) tournament, so that’s our ultimate goal.
“But we also know there’s a lot of games way before that, so we know we gotta take it game by game. We know it’s a long season, we started out 2-4 last year, we went 29-7, so we get it, we get that we actually got off to a slow start and look what happened at the end.”
The end was a disappointment, whether that was watching 68 other teams get their names called on Selection Sunday or blowing a 17-point lead at home to Massachusetts in the third round of the NIT, letting the Minutemen escape with a 72-70 victory and missing out on the chance to play for the NIT title at Madison Square Garden.
If there’s any year to win the CAA tournament, held down in Richmond (Va.), it’s this year, with only seven teams eligible for the league championship. Gone for the stiffer competition of the Atlantic 10 Conference are the VCU Rams; Old Dominion (C-USA) and Georgia State (Sun Belt) are both changing conferences and are thus barred by league rules. Towson and UNC-Wilmington are also ineligible under NCAA academic progress rate (APR) guidelines, but that doesn’t mean it’s a total cakewalk for Drexel. The preseason runner-up Delaware Blue Hens also have two preseason First-Team All-Conference selections (Devon Saddler and Jamelle Hagins), marking the first time the rival schools have ever been picked 1-2 in the preseason poll.
“It’s always a tough game,” Flint said. “They’ve got two of the best players in the league, they return a lot of guys…(Jarvis) Threatt was one of the better freshman, so they have a lot of guys back. They got some experience now…so we all expected it. They’re not a surprise to be picked second.”
“I tell our players this also, I think they’ve always taken it a little bit more personally than we have. I think they really come to play much harder than we do. We’ve been very fortunate to win some of those games–a lot of them–but I still think that they take it way way more personal than we do.”
Though Givens is gone, this year’s Dragons still have plenty of talent up and down their roster. The whole engine starts with Massenat, the 6-4 lefty with the silky stroke who has a chance to let the whole country know his name in his junior season. While he continues to refine his game for his final two years of college, Drexel’s floor general has to really begin to take control of his team as he matures into an upperclassman.
“Gotta be a little bit more vocal out there, he can’t take for granted that everybody’s back so they know what they’re doing,” Flint said about Massenat. “Still gotta take command of the team, little things like that. Just can’t say ‘well he was here last year, he should know it.’ So that’s one of the things I’m on him about.”
Though many would assume Massenat’s likely to improve on his scoring average from last season (13.7 ppg), it’s actually much more likely that it’s his assist number (4.8 apg) that could see a drastic rise. Sophomore Damion Lee averaged 12.0 ppg his freshman season, but with a year of college conditioning and preparation under his belt the 6-6 wing could be in for a special season; he was picked alongside Massenat, Saddler and Hagins on the preseason All-Conference First Team. Lee told CoBL back in July at the Delco Pro-Am that he was fatigued by the end of the season, especially when a six-man Dragon rotation played three games in three days at the CAA tournament before falling just short to VCU in the finals.
“Damion was a freshman so I get that part of it, so now as a sophomore he has a better idea of what type of condition he should be able to come into to be able to last throughout the season,” Flint said. “I think a little bit of it too is just not come in and conditioning but knowing how to treat yourself during the season, you should learn from that. Just because you played a lot is not necessarily the only reason why you wore down. What you eat, what you’re doing at night and all those things like that come into play.”
Part of the reason Drexel was shorthanded was they were without the least-heralded member of the backcourt, defensive specialist Derrick Thomas, who was suspended by the school after Thomas was arrested on charges that were later dropped. Now, with all of that trouble behind him, he can continue doing what he did so well last season–defend the perimeter and hit 3-pointers.
“He’s been a four-year starter here, stated since day one, so he’s been a good contributor for me, he’s been a solid player,” Flint said about the 6-3 New York City native. “I thought that his defense slacked a little bit because he thought about scoring last year. I think when he puts his mind to it he is the best defensive guard in the league. But things have improved–his shooting’s gotten better each and every year, and his scoring’ has gotten better each and every year.”
Another New York native, 6-2 sixth man Chris Fouch, is finally healthy entering a season and is an incredibly dangerous scorer off the bench for the Dragons. Though he might not need to lead the team in scoring like he did back in 2010-11, Fouch is certainly capable of earning All-CAA honors by the time the season’s over and done with.
It’s true that a few things are going to have to fall into place for Drexel to top last season. The major obvious need for the Dragons is someone to fill in behind Dartaye Ruffin and Daryl McCoy as the third (and maybe fourth) forwards off the bench. The current favorite to fill that role is 6-7 forward Kazembe Abif, who saw limited action in his freshman season last year and sat out 14 of the last 15 games with an undisclosed illness that he’s still recovering from. Redshirt freshman Casey Carroll, a 6-8 stretch-four with a nice jumper, could also earn playing time if he can improve his rebounding and post game.
“Kaz has been good though, actually, he’s been much better than I expected him to be at this point in time,” Flint said. “Doctors told us to still take it easy on him but I think he’s way further ahead then we ever thought he was gonna be. He’s actually played pretty good–one thing about Kaz is the big part of his game is being able to play with a lot of energy and that was one of the things in coming back. He lost a lot of weight from last year, he still hasn’t put it fully all back…but he’s been way ahead of schedule in terms of where we thought he would be at this point in time.”
The other intriguing x-factor is 6-7 redshirt freshman Tavon Allen, a lanky guard who looks like a wing but could actually be Massenat’s main backup at point guard. While his length does help him on the defensive end, it’s his offense that’ll get Allen some minutes in his first collegiate season.
“I don’t know about if he’s a great defender yet, but we’ll see,” Flint said. “We’ll see about that. He scores it, though, he scores the ball, he’s not a bad ballhandler, I think he’s still getting there physically but eventually he knows to be able to play for us he’s gotta be able to guard, so he’ll eventually get there.”
The Dragons have just four days until they open the season at Kent State on November 9, beginning what Flint likes to call the “marathon” of a season. Drexel knows what they’re in for. They know what they have to do. Now it’s just about getting it done.