On Car Stops and Drexel Basketball

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The 2017-18 Drexel Dragons were due to play in the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Before they could get there, the islands were ravaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.  The Paradise Jam was moved to Lynchburg, Virgnia.

Lynchburg is about an hour from the site of where I was pulled over, in a rental Prius of all things, for exceeding the speed limit when I was coming off of an Interstate making my way from a Drexel game in Davidson, North Carolina en route to my at the time girlfriend, now wife’s, place in Virginia Beach, VA.

The traffic enforcement action takes my mind to the New York State Thruway, where Matt Hipkins was pulled over both east and westbound while a group of fans day tripped the round trip from Philadelphia to watch a shorthanded Dragons team take on Buffalo in the NIT, a thrilling overtime loss.

A tournament moved from Paradise to Lynchburg, Virginia. A traffic citation. A losing NIT game.

No, I can’t define the luck of the 21st century Dragons any better than that.

 

So the Dragons enter the CAA Tournament, yes, mid pandemic, as one of the top two power ranked teams in the conference, yet somehow the six seed, on a true road court. And we all know how this story ends. They’re a Philly team. They’re the Drexel Dragons. They’re not even loveable losers, they’re just losers. The program was last respected by anyone outside the walls of the DAC about a decade ago. We KNOW how this season ends. Whatever Pandora playlist kicks out when you input “traffic citation, Lynchburg, Virginia, and first round NIT losses” around the first weekend of March, that’s what will happen.  That’s the recipe for this misery.

Maybe it’s poor officiating (you guys can’t count to 10 this year? OK, Drexel has lost that way), or playing in an enemy “neutral site” arena, or a critical injury the week of the tourney, or just coming out with an empty gas tank, we KNOW how this ends. It stopped being dramatic years ago.

The hearty fans who have kept attending the CAA tournaments make it clear to each other that “we aren’t here for the basketball,” and indeed, they seem to watch fewer and fewer games each year, replacing the basketball with beer and fellowship, at a bar, where the CAA games aren’t even on because no one knows how to explain CBS Sports Network to a bartender.

Being a Drexel fan – glamorous it is not.

 

Zach Spiker entered the program five years ago, in an outdoor ceremony so sparsely attended you would have thought it was following a Social Distancing protocol. The program he was taking over was down, and saying that he didn’t get off to a strong start is being somewhat generous. Promising changes to culture and a “Think Big, Play Fast” mantra, Dragon fans were treated largely to Tremaine Isabell ignoring play calls, and turnovers when the team fumbled at the chance to play fast. Those that believed things would change when Bruiser Flint left the helm were left without answers, and largely just left. Attendance dropped to Calvin Hicks, Coach Spiker’s family, a couple of DAC Pack faithful, and a handful of folks who enjoy casual conversations with referees on Saturday afternoons.  To still be hanging around as a Drexel Phanatic, you needed to be a bit Gritty.  All the salt that should be going into victory cheesesteaks instead ended up in wounds.

Drexel’s teams under Zach Spiker finished 250, 251, 251, and 244 nationally (Kenpom) over the last four years. Combined with the misplays of the first two seasons, and now a change at Athletic Director for the Dragons, defending the Head Coach was becoming challenging even for the most fervent. It seems everyone, from the Head Coach, to the fans, needed a lucky bounce – and hey – this is Drexel – good luck with that.

Instead of a lucky bounce, CAA opponents found ways to not go to the DAC this season, and the Dragons ended CAA play 4-5 while playing only two home games. It was easy to miss the fact that the Dragons won three on the road in the abbreviated season, after only winning four CAA road games total in Spiker’s first four years at the helm, a stat brought to his attention perhaps a bit more often than desired.

At 3-5, no one was looking at the national rankings, which showed a 100 spot advance. No one saw that Zach Walton had found much more consistency in his game, and that the offense had cracked the top 100 nationally and was tops in the CAA, or that they were cleaning the glass at the highest level since twin towers Dartaye Ruffin and Daryl McCoy shared the floor.

Then suddenly it happened.

Six seed Drexel drew the weakest CAA three seed in recorded history, a Brevin Galloway-less Charleston team in the first round. A team the Dragons had lost to twice, and a team that chose to play a D-II school rather than a league game during a recent open weekend. There was strong motivation for the Dragons, and weak prey across the floor. The six seed over the three was not an upset at all this year.

In the second round, the Dragons caught a Northeastern team coming off of a Covid pause down two starters, and rolled through.

Was this the Dragons, catching breaks?

Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you make your own luck. One might suggest that this team, in this tournament, has done both, which is all but unimaginable to most of the diehard Drexel faithful.

The Dragons meet Elon, the eight seed tonight. Throw the seeds out the window. Elon is on fire, and they rolled through defending champion Hofstra last night like a hot knife through butter. They’re extremely well coached, and relatively healthy. The break that the Dragons catch tonight is that they are playing an Elon team that didn’t earn a bye (they too, only played two home games and are criminally underseeded). No CAA team has ever won four games in the CAA tourney. It’s a big advantage for the Dragons, who are only playing their third game of the extended weekend tonight.

But Drexel will also need to make their own luck – or just go and show as the more talented team.

When Cam Wynter opens the game with the ball in his hands, he’ll be following in the footsteps of Battle and Brooks, Goss and King, Elegar and Mason, Massenat and Givens, Fouch and Lee. Guys who fans were so sure were bound to take the Dragons to the promised land, to the Big Dance. But this time could be different. This time, this team, it’s creating it’s own luck, and falling into some too.

When Cam Wynter opens the game with the ball in his hands, he’ll be carrying a generation – twenty five years – worth of Dragons fans hopes. Students, Faculty and supporters.  Those gritty, grungy, at times intoxicated, “I don’t even want to watch anymore”, miserable Dragons fans. And like Andy Dufresne crawling out of Shawshank, Cam and JB, TJ, Zach and Mate, Matey and X and their teammates and support staff, can carry these fans who have survived the bleak years and deliver them clean on the other side.

Last night Zach Spiker described his team as “A locker room that really cares about each other… They compete and they have no ego.” And when one sees these players go to work, that’s entirely believable. This team is deep, this team believes in each other, and it’s run by a coaching staff that’s been virtually unchanged in five years, unheard of at the D-I level. Culture, continuity, and talent. They check all of those boxes. They may not be playing fast, but maybe it’s time Drexel fans allow themselves to Think Big.

 

Seven PM. CBS Sports Network. If this isn’t worth tuning in for, I don’t much know what is.  It’s been 25 years. Is tonight the night?

 

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