The Duality, and the Luck, of the Dragon

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After this weekend, we’ll have a full 60 games of the Zach Spiker era under our belts, making him the 10th man to coach the Dragons for at least 60 games and live to tell the tale. He inherited a broken machine, and a slow-and-steady rebuild was expected. Spiker’s second season has put the program in the curious position of trending upwards while mired in an historic stretch of program futility.

This is the duality of the Dragon.

On one hand, with one more win, this will be the Dragons’ winningest home schedule (nine home wins) since the 2011-12 season, when, of course, they were the best team in the CAA, if not Philadelphia. This Drexel team wins at home.

The dark side: Drexel’s loss at Charleston this past Saturday clinched a fourth straight losing regular season, and all but clinched a fourth straight losing end-of-year record (their record after the CAA tournament is over). Unless the team wins its remaining four conference games, and then wins at least two conference tournament games, this will tie the longest streak of losing seasons in program history dating back to 1931, when Drexel joined the Eastern Pennsylvania Collegiate Basketball League and the team’s season records were finally logged regularly. It’s happened two other times, and it hasn’t happened since World War II:

1932-1936
– HC Walter Halas (2-16 in 32-33, 4-12 in 33-34), HC Ernest Lange (7-10 in 34-35, 8-9 in 35-36)

1937-1941
– HC Ernest Lange (3-12 in 37-38, 1-13 in 38-39), HC Lawrence Mains (3-13 in 39-40, 5-9 in 40-41)

The only relief from 1932 to 1941 was an 8-8 season in 1936-37, Lange’s sole year without a losing record. He was bad at his job.

2014-2017
– HC Bruiser Flint (11-19 in 14-15, 6-25 in 15-16), HC Zach Spiker (9-23 in 16-17, currently 11-16 in 17-18)

These have been four hard years for Drexel fans after a decade of promising basketball, but Spiker’s year-over-year improvement is at least not discouraging.

Look at the improvement in win percentage from Drexel’s best coaches, year one to year two on the job:

  • Cozen: +.304, to .833
  • Burke: +.167, to .667
  • Herrion: +.226, to .759
  • Flint: +.113, to .613

In their encores, those four pushed their teams to really good seasons. The difference, of course, is not one of those four started with a team as porous as Spiker’s: coming off a 6-25 season, losing a starting point guard, and having to rope in a freshman from Iceland just for some outside shooting.

Right now, Spiker is at +.126 from last season to this season. He’s basically in line with the kind of improvement we’ve seen from Drexel’s best head coaches, dating back to Sam Cozen.

Despite the historic losing streak, there’s a lot to like about what Spiker’s done in his first 60 games: he’s sped up the offense, he’s started to purposefully and mindfully build a culture, and he’s found diamonds in the rough like Kurk Lee, Kari Jonsson’s season, and now Alihan Demir. Hopefully the good signs turn into something cohesive in the coming years.

In the interim, we’re stuck looking at a Drexel team with an 11-16 record, missing its best big man and staring down a road game vs. Northeastern that’ll be hard to win without Austin Williams suiting up.

Instead of looking at this game, let’s look at something from Ken Pomeroy and explore the luck of the dragon. We all know KenPom: good stats, better nickname.

My favorite KenPom stat is his LUCK metric, because in a sea of very definitive figures that have measured efficiencies to the fifth decimal point, the idea of trying to quantify a given team’s je ne sais quoi is a lot of fun.

In an article from the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg, Pomeroy admitted the LUCK metric was at least a bit of a misnomer, describing it this way:

“Basically the idea is that convincing wins and convincing losses are pretty much deserved, and that close wins and close losses are more due to randomness. I’m not a religious believer that everything’s ‘lucky.’ But if you watch games, there’s a lot of stuff outside your control in a one-possession game, even if you are clutch. Even if you are clutch, a referee could [affect]you, or the the other team could be just as good. That leads me to believe that ‘luck’ is mostly a real thing.”

Last season, Drexel ranked 339th in the nation in LUCK. The Dragons were 2-6 in games decided by five points or fewer. They were bad everywhere, but their 6-25 record was probably a little worse than it should’ve been empirically; at least, if Pomeroy is to be believed.

This season, Drexel ranks 34th in the nation in LUCK. The Dragons are 8-6 in games decided by five points or fewer this season, including a four-point win over a Top-30 KenPom team in Houston and a five-point win over a Top-125 KenPom team in College of Charleston.

The difference there probably isn’t “luck” in its most literal sense so much as it’s LUCK. When the metric measures things that are theoretically outside of your control, you want as much experience and talent as possible. Compare this year’s team to last year’s team. Having guys like Troy Harper and Tramaine Isabell, and having a full season of college ball under Kurk Lee’s belt, make a world of difference in games that demand a little “luck.”

Drexel also has eight losses by at least 10 points this season. This is a high-variance team, and one without any discernible patterns outside of being far, far better when Austin Williams plays. There’s no evidence being good at luck will lead to anything other than another first-round CAA tournament loss.

But as Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon pointed out in that same Washington Post story, having LUCK on your side is probably better than having it against you:

“You have seasons where you lose those, and you have some seasons where you win ’em,” Turgeon said. “I’d rather be 10-0 going into the NCAA tournament in close games than 5-5, because [now]we believe.”

HOUSEKEEPING

Tramaine Isabell has 437 points. This’ll be the 19th individual season with 500 points in a single campaign. He’ll be the 14th Drexel player to do it. Next year, without injury or regression, he could become the fifth player in school history with two 500+ point seasons.

The full list:

Michael Anderson: 3
Malik Rose: 2
John Rankin: 2
Jeff Myers: 2
Len Hatzenbeller: 1
Damion Lee: 1
Chris Fouch: 1
Stephen Starks: 1
Frantz Massenat: 1
Joe Linderman: 1
Brian Holden: 1
Bob Stephens: 1
Michael Thompson: 1

Also, only six players have averaged 20 points per game in a season with Drexel. Isabell is at 19.9 points per game (Anderson, Rankin, Hatzenbeller, Lee, Rose, Bob Buckley). Only Anderson did it twice.

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