“Signature win”, “Defining win”, “Big win” were all phrases that came across my cell phone or laptop before the William and Mary game had even concluded. Kevin Connors of ESPN tweeted: “Wow. What a HUGE win for @DrexelMBB today.” Beating a team that was 6-0 in the league by 27 points is pretty huge, but there is context to be had:
What the win over William and Mary did:
After opening the season 2-1 at home, Drexel had to prove that they could win on the road two weekends ago. By going 1-1, while getting smoked by Towson and then leading wire to wire at JMU, they didn’t quite shut down the doubters, but they did what they needed to do to bring some optimism to the conversation. A home blowout over a bad Elon team was then expected. So while Drexel was 4-2 and in fourth place going into the game against William and Mary, there was an argument that they hadn’t beaten anyone of top level quality yet. With the win on Saturday, that argument has been effectively silenced.
Even if you believed that W&M was due for a bad night after winning their first four conference road games, you didn’t see a dominant blowout against that level of competition coming. Bad teams don’t blowout good teams. At 5-2 in league play, sitting in third place, and with this win, no one is going to be sleeping on the Dragons anymore. No one can call them a bad team in this league. For a team that hasn’t finished above .500 in conference play in seven years, and was 19-53 (.358) over the last four years, that matters.
There may be a light at the end of the tunnel for Zach Spiker and his team, and with the young core that they are building with that light should only get brighter as time moves forward.
What the win over William and Mary did not do:
While the win was big, and the future is bright, a home win over a good team that was due for a letdown does not instantly make the Dragons a title contender. As a matter of fact, it’s easy to see them getting absolutely smoked in one or both of their next two games. Northeastern is returning home angry, coming off of a loss at UNCW, and needs to beat Drexel to right the ship and return to their expected place towards the top of the standings. After playing in Boston on Thursday, the Dragons have a quick turnaround trip to Hofstra on Saturday, whose ability to get to the rim on offense and apply ball pressure on defense makes the Dutchmen the most challenging matchup in the conference for the Dragons style of play.
Just like beating W&M doesn’t make the Dragons a great team in this league, losing these two games against title contenders wouldn’t suddenly make the Dragons a “bad” team again. What it would do is setup an angry Dragons team to go into Delaware in the next game and have a chance to not only bury the rival Blue Hens into playing in the CAA “Play In Game” this year, but keep themselves out of it.
Thus, what the win over W&M did perhaps more than anything else, was make Drexel at Delaware on Saturday, February 1st the most meaningful game left on the entire CAA schedule. Dragon fans – you may want to start planning to make it down to Newark for that one.
TJ Bickerstaff is Showing Signs
In conference season as a freshman, William and Mary’s (and NBA prospect) Nathan Knight averaged 8 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 block per game, along with three fouls per game, all in just 17 minutes per contest. Per College Basketball Reference, he was third on that team in win shares with .176 per forty minutes played.
In conference season as a freshman, TJ Bickerstaff is averaging 5 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal per game, along with two fouls per game, all in just 16 minutes per contest. Per College Basketball Reference, he is third on his team in win shares with .160 per forty minutes played.
All of this is to say, big guys develop a bit later and can take a bit longer to grow into the college game. But if they are showing talent as freshman, you could really have something. TJ has shown abilities to the point where, with work and development, he can be a special player for Zach Spiker and Drexel University. With Cam Wynter a shoo-in for the All CAA teams as a sophomore, having a freshman with this kind of potential next to him should keep all Dragon fans excited for this season, and the next couple as well.
Turnovers are Down
After playing an out of conference schedule full of teams that turn people over (Stephen F Austin, Abiline Christian and South Florida are all top 10 in the country) the turnover problem was going to solve itself a bit in conference play, mostly due to lack of ball pressure among CAA defenses. Elon, UD, JMU, Towson, and William and Mary are all bottom 50 nationally in turning people over, and lo and behold, Drexel went 4-1 against those teams in their first pass.
Are the Dragons actually improved at taking care of the ball, which Zach Walton made clear has been a point of emphasis from the coaching staff to him and his teammates for most of the season? Or have they just benefited from a very soft schedule in that regard? The next two games feature the top two CAA teams at forcing turnovers, and while neither Northeastern nor Hofstra excels in that stat, as they are the two biggest challenges remaining, fans can look to these games to see if that improvement is real. Because otherwise:
The Dragons are real
Drexel is the best rebounding team in the conference. James Butler is anchoring a front court that is first in offensive rebound percentage (by quite a bit) and fourth in defensive rebounding percentage. Camren Wynter (fifth ranked player in the conference, per Kenpom) obviously gives the team an outstanding point guard and scorer. Fans saw a glimpse of what could be the “Big Three” with Zach Walton coming alive on Saturday, but while Walton has that potential, his decision making all season long has hurt the Dragons more than helped. So it has been on others to step up, and in the recent winning run Coletrane Washington (17 points at Towson), Mate Okros (12 points at JMU), Matey Juric (11 points at JMU and 9 vs Delaware) and TJ Bickerstaff (8/3/2 against JMU, 6/3 against William and Mary) have all stepped up. Sam Green continues to play his role strongly as well. Add it all up, and for the first time in years, the Dragons have five guys on the floor – at all times – that need to be guarded. Opposing defenses can’t cheat to help with Butler and Wynter or they will be made to pay by two players who have good vision and can find the open man. The team is still young, but the offense is getting figured out and the defense, while still with flaws, is without question the best it has been under Zach Spiker.
The bottom line is this: The Dragons will win on the boards, so if they can keep the turnovers even with their opposition, they should be able to compete against any other team in their conference on any given night. That is the sign of a team that belongs. In the preseason, the Dragons were picked eighth in this league which was a major mistake by the voters. This team belongs in the competitive conversation in the CAA, and should be able to avoid the CAA “Play In Game” for the second year in a row (winning at Delaware in two weeks would all but lock that up). All that while being one of the youngest teams in the area.
The Dragons are real, and this may be just the beginning.