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Expectations must be higher for experienced, familiar Drexel

10/28/2020, 10:30am EDT
By Josh Verlin

Camren Wynter (above) is one of two all-league players with two years of eligibility remaining on the Drexel roster. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

When Drexel coach Zach Spiker sent his players home for the pandemic this spring, they did more traveling than any other team in the City 6. The Dragons hail from five different countries and live in seven different time zones, the five Pennsylvania players on the roster supplemented by a widespread group of teammates.

There’s more than 5,500 miles from Zach Walton’s home in Morton, Wash. to Tadas Karirinas’ hometown of Silute, Lithuania. Walton and junior college transfer Chukka Mekkam, a Portland native, live on the West Coast. Freshman guard Xavier Bell (Wichita, Kan.) gives them a presence in the middle of the country. Several others are scattered up and down the East Coast, from T.J. Bickerstaff (Atlanta, Ga.) to Matey Juric (Toronto, Ont.). Amari Williams, another freshman, calls Nottingham, England home, while Mate Okros was in Debrecen, Hungary.

Spiker swears the time difference didn’t make it too tough for his guys to find time to have team Zoom sessions: “They’re young,” the fifth-year coach said by phone. “Guys stay up all the time anyways.”

Despite the distance, Spiker has to hope this year’s group comes together more than any other he’s had so far in his half-decade in University City. Though the Dragons have improved their record in each of his first four years, those steps have been small shuffles rather than long strides: inheriting a team that won six games in 2015-16, Spiker’s guided his team to 9-23, 13-20, 13-19 and 14-19 records. 

Last year’s group seemed to have turned a corner, sitting at 12-8 overall (5-2 CAA) on Jan. 18 after a 27-point home win over William & Mary, but then proceeded to lose 10 of 11 to close out the regular season and managed just 43 points in a CAA quarterfinal loss to Hofstra.

There’s reason for optimism, though, considering this should be not only the most experienced roster Spiker’s had in his tenure, but the one whose roles are best defined. The first few years of the Flint-Spiker transition saw freshmen overtaking seniors in the rotation, transfers who never quite fit in, and a couple promising players leaving the program early. 

But this offseason there were no transfers out save little-used Jarvis Doles, and only wing forward Sam Green (5.2 ppg/2.4 rpg) graduated off last year’s roster. More than 90% of the team’s minutes and production are back, including a few underclassmen whose development will be crucial for the season(s) ahead.

The returning core begins with the inside-out duo of Cam Wynter and James Butler, and it’s a great place to start.

Wynter earned All-CAA Second Team honors as a sophomore (15.7 ppg/3.7 rpg/5.1 apg), the only underclassman on the league’s top two teams. One of the league’s clear emerging stars over the last two seasons, the 6-foot-2, 175-pounder from Long Island enters his junior season only 123 points shy of 1,000; he’s also already 11th on the school’s all-time assist list (342), only 10 out of the top 10 and within striking distance of all-time leader Michael Anderson (724 assists from 1984-88). 

Though, if Spiker’s words are any indication, Anderson’s scoring record of 2,208 points might be under greater threat before Wynter’s years at Drexel are finished.

“We had to play Cam Wynter at such an elite number of minutes on the ball that I don’t know if we’ve maximized him,” Spiker said. “I think he can score off the ball for us and I think that we need to be able to defend without the fear of foul trouble. I think people took advantage of us in that standpoint.”

To help relieve Wynter of his on-ball duties, Spiker and his staff brought in Mekkam, a Portland (Ore.) native who’d spent the last year at junior college powerhouse Vincennes University (Ind.). A 6-1, 185-pound point guard, Mekkam averaged 8.0 ppg on 36.9% 3-point shooting last year for a team that went 28-5, but it was his assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.2:1 (149 assists, 46 turnovers) that really sticks out.

Butler, a muscular 6-8 forward and All-CAA Third Team selection, led the league in rebounding (13.2 ppg/11.7 rpg) last year, then found out this fall he’ll get an additional year of eligibility, giving him two years left in a Drexel uniform. That’s a massive boost for the Dragons’ interior, which hasn’t had a double-double threat of his magnitude since Samme Givens graduated in 2013. 

The Dragons’ other double-digit scorer, Walton, is back as well, playing out his final year of eligibility as a grad student. Walton, a 6-6 wing who averaged 12.2 ppg along with 4.4 rpg, went for 20-plus five times, including a season-high 32-point outing against Bryant. If he can improve on his 3-point shooting (26.5%), he could be one of the better offensive players in the CAA.

On top of all those veterans are two more juniors with significant experience: Juric, a 5-11 point guard who started 15 games a year ago, averaging 5.2 ppg and 2.0 apg; and Coletrane Washington, a 6-4 shooting guard and the team’s top 3-point shooter by percentage a year ago, averaging 5.1 ppg on 43.9% from deep.

“I think for the first time in my five years, we aren’t going to have to live and die with youthful mistakes,” Spiker said. “We’re going to make them, we’re going to have them, because we’ve got some good young players coming in. But...we’ve got depth. And I think our veteran experience, collective veteran experience is as high as it’s been.

“Zach Walton wants to be a good leader, Cam Wynter wants to take the next step as a program impact guy, James Butler wants to do that. It’s important to our veterans, really important.”

Mate Okros (above) is one of two sophomores who need to be more consistent for Drexel to be contenders. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

While Spiker does have that veteran presence and core, it’s going to be in large part the development of his less-experienced players that determines just how successful the 2020-21 season is for the Dragons; two sophomores in particular. Okros and Bickerstaff both flashed plenty of potential as true freshmen, soaking up quite a bit of experience along the way.

Okros, a 6-6 wing from Hungary, started all 33 games, finishing fifth in the CAA and tops amongst league freshmen (though second on his own team) by hitting 41.4% of his 3-point attempts. He averaged 5.5 ppg, topping out at 14 against Quinnipiac, though he only hit double-digits four other times. Bickerstaff, a 6-9 wing forward and nephew of Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff, averaged 4.8 ppg and 3.5 rpg but showed what he’s capable of with a 16-point, seven-rebound effort against Temple.

If both Bickerstaff and Okros start producing at a level more consistently similar to their best efforts last year, that will take a lot of offensive pressure off Wynter, Butler, and Walton.

“They went through a normal freshman year: some good, some up, some down, but excited for them to be back and seasoned, having experienced it last year,” Spiker said. “Okros has added some size and weight, and continues to improve his all-around game, his shooting around rebounding; Bickerstaff continues to simplify his game, and when he simplifies his game, he’s very, very effective.”

Walton, Wynter, Mekkam, Juric, Washington, Butler, Okros and Bickerstaff should be Spiker’s clear top eight heading into the season, and if that group stays healthy, the Dragons won’t have many excuses if they don’t finally take a large stride towards competing at the top of the CAA. 

And that’s before factoring in a freshman class that includes 6-3 guard Xavier Bell (Wichita, Kan./Andover Central), the 2020 Mr. Kansas Basketball recipient; 6-10 center Amari Williams (Nottingham, Eng./Myerscough College), Mate Okros’ teammate at Myerscough; and 6-6 wing Lamar Oden Jr. (Powder Springs, Ga./Greenforest-McCalep Christian), the second cousin of former Ohio State standout Greg Oden.

“We know we have to be better, we also know we’ve been better each year,” Spiker said. “Has it been slow? Yes. Has it been slower than anyone would have liked? Of course. 

“But is there a strong, strong foundation as you look at this roster, and is it balanced from a depth standpoint? Is it balanced from a class standpoint?”

Spiker didn’t answer those last two questions, not directly. But it’s clear he thinks the answer is yes, and he’s certainly not wrong. 

Just how much of a difference that will make will be clear soon enough.

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