With the season (appropriately if not unexpectedly) kicking off on a Sunday, here are some Stream of Consciousness Notes on the 21-22 Dragons
The 2021-2022 Drexel Dragons, defending CAA Champs that they are, were picked third in this years CAA coach/SID and media poll. There are some credible folks (hi, Jerry) that think this is even high. I’m usually a cynic and yet I see it as low. Some thoughts on why:
The two CAA teams that matched up in the title game last season, Drexel and Elon, each played a total of TWO (2) TWO, that is two, CAA home games all season last year (thanks Mark Byington, Earl Grant and certain brothers in Co-op). That kind of schedule is going to make your numbers look soft. Combine that with the poor NCAA tourney showing, and add on the hot shooting in the CAA tournament, and the “they weren’t that good but got hot when it mattered” take is an easy one to make when talking about last year’s Dragons. It’s the wrong take, but I get that it is an easy trap.
The Dragons led the CAA in offensive efficiency last year while never playing at home after January 17th. That is a hell of a stat and that speaks to the fact that they were not a team that got hot at the right time, but rather just an offensive juggernaut in this league.
But the Dragons lost TJ Bickerstaff and Zach Walton in the offseason, and both of them were key contributors!
This is true, as Zach Walton really found some discipline and found his spot in the system in his final year as a Dragon, and TJ Bickerstaff had some big games down the stretch. TJ Bickerstaff is an outstanding player and I can’t wait for him to blossom and play professionally, but he was also a career 10% three-point shooter in a four-out system. I’d argue his largest asset for the Dragons was his length and defensive effort, which was meaningful.
This year the position those two shared will be occupied for 40 minutes a game by the paring of last year’s MAAC Third Teamer Melik Martin, and rising sophomore Lamar Oden Jr. Oden was the first freshman in the rotation to get minutes last year, breaking in prior to Xavier Bell. The coaching staff seems high on him, and he’s been in the system. With Martin, the staff has a guy who has shot the ball well throughout is prior four years (36% career shooter from deep, 40% last season) and was a top twenty rebounder in the MAAC last season. In short, the Dragons playing the four this season, if they are able to defend consistently should contribute as much – and potentially more – than the guys playing there last year did.
I’m very high on this pairing, and while a game against a D III team isn’t worth much, they combined for 25 points on just 16 shots, along with 11 rebounds, an assist and zero turnovers in the game against Neumann. There’s room to be excited here.
If we’re going to make that jump and say fans can be optimistic about what Drexel has at the four spot, along with All CAA preseason first teamers James Butler and Cam Wynter, then already 3/5ths of the rotation looks solid. Add third year starter Mate Okros’ sharpshooting and consistency, and the only real question with the first team is which guard starts next to Okros and Wynter? It’ll be Xavier Bell in all likelihood, who – I don’t know if you’ve heard – had an offer to play football in the Big XII prior to deciding to come to Drexel. His toughness and versatility should give Drexel attack options, and more importantly, some defensive integrity. But the team has other options as well: crafty veteran and two year starter Matey Juric (Jamie Moyer anyone?), or sharpshooters Coletrane Washington and Luke House, both who have played significant meaningful minutes in the past.
Right now Juric, Trane and House profile as the teams 8-9-10 guys off the bench, and they even have some competition for those roles. One of these guys has been a consistent starter and the other two have both shown 40% ability from deep, and they are going to have to fight to get minutes. That is a sign of a really strong team.
On top of this group, the Dragons finally have a legit point guard (nee, combo, nee, can play the point… just simply point guard) behind Cam Wynter in Tre Brown. Besides giving the coaches some flexibility with foul trouble or simply a breather for Cam, it could also allow Cam to slide off the ball at times.
The biggest question mark on this squad is Amari Williams. Lined up at the five behind James Butler he didn’t show a ton last year, but we know he can play above the rim, is a shot block and is a plus passer. If he can stay up to speed defensively and be a legit defender at the rim, he can give the Dragons a mobile big man with vertical athleticism that Coach Spiker has never had with the Dragons. The flip side is, if he can’t catch up to the speed of the game as a sophomore – something that is tough for big men to do – then there’s a real concern as to what happens with James Butler is off the floor. Given all the depth elsewhere on the roster, Amari Williams ability to make the leap may be one of the biggest stories to watch for the Dragons this year – and will likely determine the outcome in a couple of games this year.
All of that talent and depth and the freshman haven’t been mentioned yet. Forward Terrance Butler profiles as a significant contributor next year at the four or five, and may fight for minutes this year or be pressed into service in a pinch. Ata Atsuren is a 6’3” shooter (shooter… shooter… shooter, hear one thing consistently this year) who has played at a high level in Turkey and is capable of grabbing minutes in the guard rotation once he shows the staff he is up to speed.
Together, the Dragons have a starting five that can compete with last years team and much more depth. It’s a veteran team that was elite offensively and should take a step forward this season. As always seems to be the case with Zach Spikers’ teams the question will be on the defensive end of the court. If the new guys at the four and Xavier Bell can show themselves as plus defenders there is every reason to think that third place in a strong CAA is a floor, not a ceiling. This isn’t a puff piece – I don’t do those. This is what the Dragons are, this is the culmination of a process that started when Cam Wynter set foot on campus and there is every reason to have high expectations.
Will the Dragons beat Syracuse on the road today? That is a tall ask. Should it be much closer than the game that ended the 20-21 season? Absolutely. Because the Dragons sights this year shouldn’t be focused on just the CAA.