Zach Spiker (above) and the Dragons are hoping to take a step up the CAA ladder in his second season. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
2017-18 Drexel Dragons Primer
Coach: Zach Spiker, 2nd season (9-23, .281)
Last Year: 9-23 overall, 3-15 Colonial Athletic
After 15 years of the Bruiser Flint regime, the Drexel administration made a coaching change last spring, bringing in Army head coach Zach Spiker to take over a program that seemed to get stuck in the mud since a 29-win season back in 2011-12. The Dragons won no more than 16 games in any of the next four seasons, crashing to a worst-ever six wins back in 2015-16. Injuries certainly played their role, with multiple key players missing entire seasons each time. Spiker’s first season was certainly nothing glorious, though several impressive freshmen and a more exciting offensive style made them more watchable than they’d been in a while. Improvements are expected for Year Two.
Key Losses: PF Rodney Williams (15.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg), PF Mohamed Bah (4.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg)
By far, the biggest piece the Dragons will need to replace on the court this year is Williams. The 6-7 forward out of Richmond (Va.) started 92 games over four years, finishing with 1,158 points (25th in school history) and 687 rebounds (17th). He put up his best all-around numbers during a senior year in which he also hit a career-best 52.6 percent from the field to lead the Dragons in scoring. A strong defender, he also blocked 128 shots in 114 career games. He’ll begin his professional career in Israel this year. Bah, a 6-9 big man from Mali, appeared in 104 games in his Drexel career (38 starts), averaging 3.2 ppg and 3.5 rpg in his career. Also gone from last year’s roster is John Moran, a grad student and former Richmond walk-on who contributed 2.8 ppg in 31 games.
New Faces: PF Alihan Demir (Soph./Central Wyoming College), F/C Jarvis Doles (Fr./Mount Zion Prep, Md.), SG Troy Harper (R-Jr./Campbell University), G Tramaine Isabell (R-Jr./Mizzouri), PF Tadas Kararinas (Fr./Findlay Prep, Nev.), F/C Timmy Perry Jr. (Fr./Phelps School, Pa.)
In their first full year of recruiting, Spiker and his staff brought in two transfer guards last summer and then secured the commitments of three prep big men and a JUCO forward as the Dragons coaches continue to shape the roster just the way they want it. There’s actually one more new face in the program, though Navy transfer James Butler is ineligible this season due to NCAA regulations and will be a redshirt sophomore next fall.
Harper and Isabell both are in their second year with the Drexel program, as each sat out their NCAA-mandated transfer year last year and will both be redshirt juniors this year. Harper, a Philadelphia native and Neumann-Goretti alumnus, averaged 13.5 ppg and 3.3 rpg during his sophomore year at Campbell. The bouncy 6-2 wing guard hit 38 percent of his shots overall and just 29 percent from 3-point range. Isabell, a 6-0 point guard, averaged 5.2 ppg during 55 games at Mizzou, where he also struggled from beyond the arc (28.2 percent). Both are looking to play big roles in Drexel’s backcourt this year, but they’ll need to hit shots.
While those two are guaranteed to see minutes this year, the rest of the newcomers might struggle to see time. Perry, an athletic 6-10 forward originally out of Cherry Hill East (N.J.), has an NBA pedigree in his father and a high ceiling, but he’s got work to do in terms of his ability to react at this level. Kararinas is a skilled 6-10 stretch forward from Lithuania but his athleticism needs to catch up for the Division I level. Doles is raw and athletic and has the ability to stretch the floor somewhat.
Starting Frontcourt: F/C Austin Williams (7.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg)
In Spiker’s four-out system, Williams is going to play the vast majority of minutes at the ‘5’, as long as he can stay on the court. The 6-8 senior forward saw sparse playing time in his first two seasons but played more than 20 mpg in 31 games last year (26 starts), putting up 13.0 points and 11.5 rebounds per 40 minutes, with foul troubles (3.6/game) preventing him from playing too much more. If he can cut down on the whistles and stay on the court for close to 30 minutes/game, he could be a consistent double-double threat in his final season.
Drexel's Kari Jonsson (above) averaged 10.1 ppg and shot 43.6 percent from 3-point range as a freshman. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Starting Backcourt: PG Kurk Lee Jr. (14.9 ppg, 5.0 apg), SG Sammy Mojica (11.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg), SG Kari Jonsson (10.1 ppg, 2.3 rpg), SF Miles Overton (9.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg)
There’s likely to be a lot of moving parts in the Drexel backcourt this season, with at least six players who would like to consider themselves starters at this point in the preseason. For now, we’ll pencil in the four who were back last year, though there’s quite a few different combinations that could be on the court when the Dragons’ season actually begins Nov. 10.
Lee is guaranteed to be in the starting lineup, and the way he played last year, it would be tough to believe he won’t be the Dragons’ primary on-ball presence for the next three seasons. The 5-9 Baltimore native only failed to reach double digits in scoring three times as a freshman, making a nifty 40 percent of his 3-pointers and shooting 41.5 percent overall. His classmate Jonsson, a 6-3 wing from Iceland, moved into the starting lineup a month into the season and scored at least 20 points twice in his rookie campaign, making 43.6 percent of his 3-pointers and showing some play-making ability off the bounce as well.
Of the two seniors above, Mojica seems likely to be in the lineup as well, having started 31 games a year ago and 51 out of 63 between his sophomore and junior years. As a junior, the 6-3 Brimmer & May (Mass.) alum averaged a career-best 11.2 ppg and 5.3 rpg, though his 31.2 percent 3-point mark was his worst yet and more than 50 percentage points worse than his freshman year (36.9 percent). Overton, a St. Joe’s Prep alum and Wake Forest, struggled mightily from the floor in his first eight games, hitting just 21.3 percent of his shots, then averaged 12.6 ppg over a 10-game stretch where he shot 39 percent overall (35 percent from 3) before hitting just 4-of-33 in his final four games.
Bench: F/C Jarvis Doles (N/A), SF Sam Green (2.4 ppg), SG Troy Harper (N/A), G Tramaine Isabell (N/A), C Tyshawn Myles (2.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg), F/C Timmy Perry Jr. (N/A.)
Aside from the freshmen and transfers, who we’ve discussed above, Drexel has two other players on the roster who could factor into things. Myles, a 6-9 senior, has played in 75 games over his three years thus far, averaging right around two points and three boards per game each season. Unless Perry or Doles really make gigantic leaps, expect Myles to put in similar work this year. Green is really the only true wing forward on the team at 6-6 and 225 pounds, but he only saw action in 14 games last season, though he did make nine of his 20 3-point attempts. Ultimately, expect Spiker to go first with the two transfers guards off the bench (or, if they start, whoever they replace) followed by Myles up front, though he’ll give both Perry and Doles a chance to supplement minutes up front if they can defend, rebound and run the floor.
Three Keys to Success
1. Play defense. Last year, the Dragons’ defense was, to put it mildly, not great. Allowing more than 1.10 points per possession, Drexel was 283rd in Division I basketball in defensive efficiency, according to hoops statistician Ken Pomeroy, second-worst in the CAA ahead of only Hofstra (1.12 ppp). It’s a far cry from where the program was during its peak under Bruiser Flint (2006-2012), when they ranked in the top 100 every year, never allowing more than .96 ppp; in 2006-07, Drexel was 18th in the country (.89 ppp). There wasn’t really any major category that the Dragons were successful in last year, but they allowed opponents to shoot 52.6 percent on 2-pointers (300th nationally), while also coming in 246th in turnovers forced (by percentage of opponents’ possessions) and 234rd in defensive rebounding (by percentage of available rebounds).
2. Avoid the drought. With two freshmen in the backcourt last year, and an entire roster adjusting to a new offensive system, Drexel had its share of struggles offensively, though not all at once. Actually, in stretches, the Dragons showed more flow and life than they had in quite some time, with Lee and Jonsson gaining chemistry throughout the year, plus spurts from Mojica and consistent effort from both Williams up front. But too often, the Dragons would go five or six possessions without a score, and those stretches would inevitably be the ones where their opponents would seize control. To try to win a few more CAA games this year, Drexel needs to find a way to remove those cold spells from the equation.
3. Free-throw shooting. Last season, the Dragons didn’t do a great job of either getting to the foul line or converting their free opportunities. Drexel only got to the foul line once for about every three shots attempted, a free-throw rate that was 278th in the country last year; the top programs in that stat approach and occasionally surpass one FT attempt for every two shots taken. At the foul stripe, Drexel made 66.6 percent, good for 290th in the country. Kurk Lee Jr. (.678) and Austin Williams (.480) certainly need to improve on their marks, while getting Kari Jonsson (.829) and Sammy Mojica (.731) to the line more often will help as well. Harper made 76.8 percent of his foul shots as a sophomore at Campbell; Isabell hit 75 percent of his FTs in his two years at Mizzou.
“I think Drexel’s gonna have a chance to be much improved from last year. In the backcourt, they had two really good freshman guards last year. You add Troy Harper and Miles Overton and Sammy Mojica, man those guys have to have one of the deepest backcourts in the Colonial. I think Drexel should be improved. Obviously it’s Zach’s second year there, so he’s past the feeling-out process over there. I’m looking forward to the Dragons team being a little bit better than they were last year.”
“I think they’re going to be still rebuilding, for sure. Filling the hole Rodney Williams left is a key, I don’t know that any of the kids they recruited are going to be able to do that right away, but they had the other Williams had a decent year, so I would imagine it’s going to be a little bit similar...maybe if the transfers can help them, they got Isabell and Harper, so if those guys can help them...Overton had such a bad beginning of the year, if he can have a better year, maybe they can make a jump with Lee and the Icelandic kid being a year older. But it’s still some years away until they’re as good as they’d like to be, I think.”
“I thought [Spiker] did a pretty good job of establishing the culture there, a new culture. The wins didn’t come last year for them, I know they wanted to win a few more games, but I thought they played well, especially their backcourt. Obviously Kurk Lee, I think could have a very, very good career there at a Drexel, broke a ton of records his freshman year. With him and the kid Kari Jonsson, I think they’ve got a pretty good backcourt, and with the two additional transfers that are eligible to play this year...their guard play could be just as potent as any other Big 5 school, to be honest with you.”
Click here for a complete breakdown of Drexel’s 2017-18 schedule
Ultimately, the various scoring options Spiker has assembled in the backcourt find a way to co-exist, with Lee taking the next step forward as a floor general and leading the conference in assists. Harper, energized by playing back in his home city, hits 35 percent of his 3-pointers and averages in double figures alongside Mojica and Jonsson, with Overton much more comfortable off the bench in a mid-range/attacking role. Austin Williams averages a double-double playing 30-plus minutes for the first time in his career, while Perry and Doles prove to be serviceable defenders and rebounders right away.
Wins over Bowling Green and Arcadia give the Dragons some momentum heading to the Paradise Jam, where they pull off an upset win over Houston in the opener before dispatching either Liberty or Mercer to reach the championship game. Regardless of what happens there, Drexel heads back to the States with gaining confidence, taking out NJIT on the road before beating Lafayette and Rider at home. By the time they emerge from the non-conference finale against Loyola (Md.) they have 10 wins, and the strong play continues into the CAA.
The worst-case scenario looks a lot like the last few years. Defensive lapses and offensive lulls lead way towards losses piling up early and often, and for yet another season the Dragons are a non-factor in the CAA race by the midpoint of the league season. Basically, what it boils down to is a lack of progress. Drexel can't really go any lower than it has been the last few years, but any lack of progress would be seen as a major disappointment. They don't have to get above .500 for it to be a success -- though obviously they'd like to do better than that, as long as they eliminate the blowouts and turn some of the close home games into wins, they're moving in the right direction.