Road Trippin’

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There was going to be a story in this space today about the upcoming rivalry game against Delaware.  No, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as last years story of DAC Pack traditions past – rather, it was about the importance of this particular game of the rivalry.

The top six CAA finishers don’t need to play in the opening day of the CAA tournament.  No one that has ever played in the first day of the CAA tournament has ever won the thing.  Newsflash:  no team wants to finish seventh.  Right now, the Dragons are in a three way tie with Northeastern and that petulant school to the south, Delaware, for fifth place in the CAA.  That’s a nice way of saying one of those teams is in seventh right now (currently Northeastern, due to tiebreakers).  As it stands Drexel is the predominate “favorite” to come in seventh, per pre-season polls of the three teams, Kenpom predictions, and virtually every ratings system out there.  However, with a win on Saturday, Drexel would not only have a game lead on Delaware, they would have the tiebreaker over them as well, with just eight games to play – no game the rest of the year will have more importance in the battle to avoid Saturday than this one.

This game won’t be easy for the Dragons, Delaware just had an incredibly impressive road sweep of Northeastern and Hofstra and seems to have re-found their early season stride with big man Dylan Painter now fully integrated.  Additionally, all anyone around this program seems to talk about is the Dragons road struggles under Zach Spiker.  Quite frankly, given all of the above, there won’t be many Dragons fans picking the Dragons to win on Saturday, when they will walk into the game about 6 point underdogs per Vegas.

And while there is a steep hill to climb for the Dragons at “The Bob” on Saturday, that last part, excuse my French, is bullshit.

And that is why the bulk of this piece isn’t going to be about the Delaware game. The rumblings about road woes have been kicking around the Drexel program for quite a while now, but I just didn’t see it.  Obviously yes – the record hasn’t been good – but are they especially bad on the road?

Look at it through another lens: using Vegas spreads to determine how the Dragons have done against expectations.  Under Spiker, Drexel has been a Vegas dream:  .500 against the spread at home.  Away from the DAC, they’ve only covered the spread in 40% of their contests after the losses last weekend.  Given the sample size, that’s statistically borderline.  Two straight wins to counter last weekend’s losses is all it would take to say that there really isn’t a trend there at all.

And so I was stuck there – with some, but little evidence, that the Dragons underperform on the road.  And a hankering that something else was the problem.  How to prove my hypothesis?  Wait a couple days and have the Greek God of College Basketball Stats write an article about exactly this [paywall (that is cheaper than Flosports)]for The Athletic.  In it, Ken Pomeroy surmises:

“past road record offers no value in predicting future road winning percentage…

…Teams that got to their 3-3 record by winning two road games lost more road games in the future than the teams that went 0-3 on the road [to get to 3-3]. So what the evidence tells us is that there isn’t any reason to infer something solely from a team’s road play.”

There is a common expression out there that “good teams win on the road.”  The inverse then, is also true.  And that’s where my end point on any study of Zach Spiker’s Drexel road record goes.  It’s not that the Dragons have been a bad road team these last few years – it’s that they’ve been a bad team relative to their D-I peers these last few years.

It’s hard to win road games in college basketball.  Bad teams don’t.  And before you ask, here’s Bruiser Flint’s road record at Drexel in his final season:  3-14.  More importantly, here’s Zach Spiker’s Drexel road record when being favored since the beginning of last season: 2-0.  They haven’t lost a single game that they were expected to win – they just weren’t expected to win that many games!

 

Before we move on: I do believe there is one “biggest” issue with the Dragons on the road, and
it comes with score differential.  They don’t just lose, they get blown out, too often.
Throwing all the stats out, I have a simple belief that they are (college basketball’s dirtiest word: ) soft.
They play like a one punch drunk when they are away from the comforts of the DAC.
In road wins against JMU, Quinnipiac and Norfolk State this year they lead almost wire to wire.
As manifested by THAT Delaware game, the Dragons can make comebacks at home.
On the road, there is no such sign.  They fall behind and they lose the will to live, whether
it is early in the game like it was at Northeastern last weekend or late such as at Hofstra.
They are a young team with a young point guard leader – so some of that is expected.
But it’s probably time for someone to send them a message the next time they go on the road and fall behind:
it’s time to grow up.

 

So there you have it.  The Dragons haven’t been losing games they should win on the road, because they have been so bad that there haven’t been many games they should win on the road.  So where does this leave Drexel stakeholders?

Well, the team needs to get better.

A very basic read of the situation is as follows:  Zach Spiker came in, and quickly stepped into the same pitfall that many first year coaches do and tried to get rich quick using transfers.  Tramaine Isabell, Troy Harper, Alihan Demir, and yes even Trevor John.  All of these players were integral pieces to teams that went 250, 251, 251 in kenpom rankings the last three years.  No one player was a mistake necessarily – but the strategy, as most first year coaches find out, was a mistake.  The coaching staff may not say that, but their actions speak to it.  It looks like they are about to announce a second straight incoming class that is entirely made up of freshman.  While some schools may not have patience and would have moved on after three such seasons, it seems Drexel’s staff may have learned from their early woes and is being allowed to rebuild, with the start of that rebuild being last season.

Within that rebuild, they are showing signs of progress.  Prior to last weekend, they had moved into the Kenpom top 200.  It’s the first time the Dragons had been in the top 200 when the calendar showed January since 2014.  They are doing it with the 258th most experienced team in the country, meaning they are doing it with a core of young, four year players, who will grow – and may become able to take a punch on the road eventually.  In fact, there is a chance that there may not even be a senior night this season, and that they retain everyone who is seeing minutes this year.  They will then supplement that core with the incoming freshman.

Movement upwards, improving defensive numbers, a young four-year core, and teammates that seem to enjoy being at Drexel (and the incoming recruiting class may speak towards that): If that continues, the road wins will come – which brings us full circle.  Because if the Dragons want to show that progress this season, and prove the young team is developing, they need to hit progress goals.  That means they can’t be playing on Saturday in the CAA tournament after getting the bye on that day last season.  Which at its root, means they need to beat Delaware this Saturday.

Maybe this article was about the importance of the Delaware game after all.

 

 

 

 

 

One final note for the statheads out there.  Pomeroy notes that “point differential”, the total amount of points one team scores over the season subtracted by the total number of points allowed, is a much better indicator of future results (including road games) then road game record.  Here has been Drexel’s CAA point differential the last four years:

2016-17: -6.8
2017-18: -6.1
2018-19: -3.3
2019-20: -0.7

Here is the CAA scoring differential leaderboard at the halfway point of the season.  This may provide some indicators for what to expect in the second half (courtesy CAASports.com), and once again underlines the importance of Saturday’s game:

 

This should have been Van Morrison’s “Bright Side of the Road”
but in deference to the man in charge, an audible was called.

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. The road losses have been ugly this year. I was surprised to see that there weren’t many more of them than expected compared to Vegas expectations. Being soft and giving up on the road does seem like a plausible explanation if you think of this year’s youngish team. If this propensity for blowouts has existed for Spiker’s entire career, this reason doesn’t hold as much water. The common denominator across the 4 years is the coaching staff.

    That last point about point differential makes a ton of sense to me, and I love the trend.

    Very much enjoyed the soundtrack to this post.

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