Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(See below for a key injury update about Wednesday night’s game)
Drexel (3-1) vs. No. 4/3 Arizona (5-0)
When: Wednesday, November 27, 7 PM
Where: Madison Square Garden, NYC/ESPNU
In a sentence… Drexel gets its toughest opponent of the season so far in a nationally top-5 Arizona squad that boasts several future NBA Draft selections, all on the court of the most famous basketball arena in the world.
KenPom Ranking: Drexel 55, Arizona 9
Getting to know the Wildcats
A mix of newcomers and returning players have Sean Miller thinking about a deep NCAA Tournament run a year after making the Sweet 16.
Miller has established a fairly clear rotation of seven players playing between 20 and 28 minutes, with one more talented freshman also seeing some playing time after missing the first few games with an injury.
The Wildcats’ leading scorer is junior scoring guard Nick Johnson, who’s shooting 58.8 percent from the floor en route to 16.8 ppg, adding in 4.8 rpg, 2.2 apg and 1.2 bpg as well. He’s also the only upperclassman in the bunch, providing some much-need experience to the ‘Cats roster.
A number of McDonald’s All-American freshmen are making a big impact early in their careers as well. One-and-done candidate Aaron Gordon, a 6-foot-9 forward, is second on the team in scoring (13.0 ppg) and leads the team in rebounding (9.0 rpg). Chester graduate Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has been playing the role of sixth man, averaging 10.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg and 1.4 apg in 20.2 mpg.
Also up front is 6-8 sophomore Brandon Ashley, who’s second on the team in rebounding (7.2 rpg) and third on the team in scoring (12.0 ppg) while shooting 69.7 percent from the field. Both Ashley and Hollis-Jefferson (.680) rank in the top five in the conference in field-goal percentage.
“I know their big guys are good, but so were UCLA’s, and Illinois State’s big guys weren’t bad either and everybody talked about [Wally] Judge and [Kadeem] Jack for Rutgers, so I think we’ve gone against some pretty good big guys to start the season,” Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said.
Helping the Wildcats offense run efficiently is transfer T.J. McConnell, a redshirt sophomore who had one great year at Duquesne before transferring out to the Pacific Time Zone. So far, he’s averaging just 5.2 ppg but his 6.8 apg are second in the Pac-12.
The other two members of the main rotation are a pair of sophomores, 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski (8.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and shooting guard Gabe York (11.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg), who are both seeing between 22-23 minutes per game and are both hitting more than 54.3 percent from the floor.
Keys to Victory
1. Manage the atmosphere. A few Dragons have experience playing on national television and on big stages, and all got a small taste in the season opener at UCLA. But Madison Square Garden is like no other basketball arena, and several young players are going to have to see at least a few minutes to spell Frantz Massenat, Chris Fouch, Damion Lee and company.
However, of the four schools in the semifinals–Drexel, Arizona, Alabama and Duke–Drexel has by far the closest distance for fans to travel. Duke and Arizona are national programs with fans in every city, but NYC is certainly close enough for Dragon fans to show up in decent numbers.
“Hopefully we can get a lot of fans because Philadelphia is not that far, we’re the closest team to Madison Square Garden out of the four teams that are left,” Drexel forward Kazembe Abif told CoBL. “I know we’re not going to fill it like how we fill the DAC but if we can get the DAC Pack there and a lot of fans, that’ll just be a great atmosphere to help us win.”
Flint is less worried about what’s going on around the actual hardwood.
“If the atmosphere gets to you, your opponent is going to kill you anyways,” he said. “I’ve never been a person that’s worried about my atmosphere. You play in hostile environments all the time so you should be ready to play and it’s not a hostile environment, it’s a neutral site. It’s not like we’ve never been on TV before, so we’ve just got to be ready to play.”
2. Post scoring. The emergence of Tavon Allen (13.3 ppg) as a capable fourth scorer out on the wing has helped Drexel’s backcourt immensely. But in order to beat a top-five team like Arizona, the Dragons will need to be able to score both inside and out to keep the Wildcat defense from getting too comfortable. Dartaye Ruffin has just eight points in Drexel’s three wins, while Abif has nine in the last two after scoring 13 in a win over Illinois State. Flint doesn’t run much of his offense through his forwards, so if they’re producing it means that they’re also getting offensive rebounds and put-backs, all of which certainly helps their chances of winning.
3. Slow the game down. Arizona doesn’t necessarily love to push the tempo, playing around the national average with a 68.8 adjusted tempo, according to KenPom. But they have the athletes to do so in Gordon, Hollis-Jefferson, Johnson and others, and McConnell running a 4-on-3 or 3-on-2 too often could spell disaster for Drexel. The Dragons’ strength comes in the half court and getting good shots, not trying to get into a track meet with a team full of future NBA-ers.
Getting to Madison Square Garden obviously does quite a few things for Drexel, including helping the teams’ RPI. An at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament would seem highly unlikely barring a surprising set of victories in NYC as well as a nearly-undefeated run through the rest of their schedule, but if Drexel does get to March Madness than that strength-of-schedule and RPI would certainly play a factor in possible seeding.
“We knew that us getting to this would be big for our strength of schedule,” Flint said. “I talked about this with the guys from the CAA, I said ‘we’ve got to get to New York, if we get to New York then you guys will talk about our strength of schedule.’ Hopefully we can win some of those games, which makes your strength of schedule even better, but we knew getting to New York would be pivotal for us from an out-of-conference strength-of-schedule thing.”
Coming into Wednesday, Drexel’s RPI is 44 with a SOS of 115, according to RealTimeRPI.com. After a pair of games against high-major opponents, those numbers are sure to improve no matter what the results.
Drexel’s hopes of an upset took a big blow on Tuesday with the news that junior forward Kazembe Abif will miss the game with a concussion; CoBL has learned it was suffered in the Dragons’ last game, against Rutgers last Tuesday. In his place, Flint could start either freshman forward Rodney Williams or redshirt sophomore wing Tavon Allen, both of whom are 6-foot-7 though Williams is an interior player while Allen is a perimeter scoring threat. Either way, Williams and Mohamed Bah are both going to have a lot on their young shoulders at MSG.
The news was first reported by CBS’ Jon Rothstein.