Dragons Ring The Bell

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Philly, New York. New York, Philly. In sport, they never seem to stand apart.

It’s fitting then that the turning point of the season for the 2021-21 Drexel Dragons Men’s Basketball Team occurred on Long Island, at the CAA defending champion Hofstra Pride’s homecourt. It’s even more fitting when you look at the player page for Cam Wynter, Drexel’s star point guard:

 

It was a long road to New York for the Dragons:  Due to covid related limitations, the freshman Dragon basketball players didn’t hit campus until the fall, rather than their usual summer session arrival. That already meant a lot less time to get to know their surroundings, their coaching staff, and recognize the speed of the college game, relative to their high school backgrounds. A preseason covid pause within the Drexel program constricted that “getting to know you” preseason even further. Now, a Drexel coaching staff that has been accused of being slow to pull the trigger on adjustments was walking into the season with freshman that they had barely gotten to workout. Couple that with six returning players who had seen significant minutes the prior year, and the writing was on the wall: It would take a significant breakthrough to see time from the freshman this year.

The fall came and went with the starting lineup of Wynter, Okros, Walton, Bickerstaff and Butler performing much like the year prior. A nice run of wins against Quinnipiac (twice) and Coppin State setup a letdown performance against La Salle. A not particularly impressive home win against St. Joe’s was followed by a walkthrough win against Farleigh Dickenson, and the 5-2 Dragons didn’t look bad, but also didn’t look special, going into conference play. Quite frankly, they looked a lot like the 2019-2020 Dragons, but in a weaker league. Any hope for a jump forward seemed to be extinguished when they dropped two at Charleston and split home games against William and Mary. “Same ole Dragons” was the word.

Some hope flowed back when the Dragons played and won a third contest against William and Mary, this time on the road – road wins had been few and far between under Zach Spiker.  When that was followed up by getting smoked at conference leader James Madison, the educated Drexel fan knew what they were looking at – in their first year with real expectations, Zach Spiker and his team were underperforming them.

There was one thing that stuck out during that JMU game, however. Mate Okros was unavailable due to injury, so Spiker and staff took their known quantity – Matey Juric – and inserted him into the starting lineup over turning to their relatively unknown freshman class. The talented guards of JMU ate apart the Dragons shorthanded guard core, with Lewis, Strickland and Morse all achieving double figures scoring for the Dukes. That trio combined for just three turnovers – and Matt Lewis had five steals off of the Dragons by himself. Things were going bad for the Dragons and the ship was taking on water.

And then they travelled to the CAA’s defending champs.

After watching his guards get beaten up at James Madison, and perhaps feeling some pressure to make a change, the Dragons staff made a move as Okros remained sidelined. They turned to that untested, underprepared freshman class. 6’3” Xavier Bell entered the starting lineup, replacing the 5’11” Juric. It was a step up in size and athleticism (“Did you know Xavier Bell was recruited to Oklahoma for football?”) which would be important against the only set of CAA guards that would rival those at JMU. The Pride’s Jalen Ray went out and shot a scorched earth 8-13 from three that afternoon. Inside, Isaac Kante got his, with a 16 and 8 game while going up against James Butler, who put up only 7 points and a single rebound in the contest. With Butler getting beat, Hofstra’s best player going off, and the Dragons on the road, fans were bracing for the worst. But the combination of Wynter/Bell/Walton with Juric off the bench held the Hofstra guards to the perimeter: Ray, Coburn and Burgess shot a combined 8 of 23 (35%) from two, which was then backed up the next day when the three combined to shoot 7 of 20 (35%) from inside the arc. Outside of those two games against Drexel that trio combined to shoot 48% from two for the season.

The “hold the line” defense held just enough for the Dragons to open the weekend with a sorely needed two point victory. And while the game the following day, against a desperate Hofstra team trying to avoid being swept on their home court, ended in a loss, it was a close contest. Throughout the season, across the country, when road teams won the front end of a back to back situation, the home team almost always rallied in the second game. And Hofstra was a talented squad, widely regarded as better than the Dragons – many expected a blowout in that second game. However with two underclassmen leading the scoring (Bickerstaff and Bell, 16 and 14 points respectively) the Dragons kept it a two possession game. After the loss, Always A Dragon contributor Alan Boston raised his vegas-style power rankings for the Dragons as much as he did at any point all season. “It was a significant increase, they had performed much better than expected” noted Alan.

From that moment on, Xavier Bell never left the starting lineup. When Mate Okros was healthy enough to play, he didn’t step back into his accustomed starting role. And did he sulk? No, instead he let his game do the talking: Mate shot an unthinkable 12-17 (71%) from three coming off the bench in the stretch run for the Dragons, notably propelling Drexel passed JMU in their second Harrisonburg engagement and scoring 14 points off the bench in the CAA Championship game. Meanwhile, Juric fell back into his role as an exemplary role player off the bench (including 28 strong minutes in the CAA Championship, when Cam Wynter’s legs seemed to be getting the best of him), and Wynter had help at the point with the capable Bell next to him. The pieces, as it were, had fallen into place.

As for Bell himself, besides bringing a hungry, aggressive, athleticism to the court, he contributed 7.5 points and 2.4 assists per game in the seasons crunch time run, while maintaining an un-freshman like less than one turnover per contest.

This isn’t the Zach Spiker Drexel team people were seeing in November and December, or even January. These Dragons ended the season going 2-1 on the road against top CAA competition. They didn’t just win a title, they won a title despite Wynter and Butler scoring just 8 and 7 respectively in the CAA Championship. They did it with depth and grit and dare I say toughness. That simply wasn’t imaginable before that weekend at Hofstra.  This team is playing at a much higher level than their NCAA Tournament 16 seed represents.

New York, Philadelphia. Philadelphia, New York.

What happened in New York now means that the only team in the NCAA Tournament from the City of Philadelphia has a Bell in the lineup.

Of course it does.

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