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Drexel passes first back-to-back test in prep for CAA play

12/05/2020, 9:45am EST
By Josh Verlin

T.J. Bickerstaff (above, last season) and Drexel moved to 2-1 on the season with two wins against Quinnipiac this week. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

With COVID-19 rearranging college basketball schedules across the country, the Colonial Athletic Association was one of several conferences that decided to do something drastically different for the 2020-21 season. Instead of the 10-school league’s typical home-and-home round-robin, each school will play the others twice on back-to-back days at one location, limiting travel and potential exposure. (The only exception will be each program's local partner; in Drexel's case, it'll play a typical home-and-home with Delaware on a Thursday/Saturday split in February.)

Luckily for Drexel head coach Zach Spiker, he was able to get his Dragons a sneak peek of what to expect come January. 

Drexel had been scheduled to play Quinnipiac and Bryant on back-to-back days during the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off, one of a series of events being held at what’s known as ‘Bubbleville’ at Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. A few days before the games, Bryant dropped out; rather than losing a game, the Dragons and Bobcats agreed to play each other twice in a row.

“This was a possibility coming here, we knew it,” Spiker said. “We jumped at (playing the same team twice) because we thought it could be something that would prepare us - we’re going to do this nine more times in our league, and got to have a little bit of a non-conference dress rehearsal for something we’re going to do in our league a lot.”

The Dragons’ first taste of seeing the same opponent twice in less than 24 hours went well: Drexel beat Quinnipiac 66-48 on Wednesday evening, then turned around and did it again Thursday afternoon, 70-58. 

In between games, there wasn’t a lot of time to do much besides break down some film, get some rest, and make a few adjustments. Whether or not the CAA games will have as tight a window as the 16-hour span from the start of one game to the next won’t make much of a difference. 

“It’s definitely different, beating a team and then coming out the next day ready to play, no matter how many points you beat them by,” junior guard Cam Wynter said. “You definitely have to be ready to play no matter what the outcome was the night before.”

Spiker said the entire coaching staff dived in on analyzing the first game’s footage, a task typically assigned to one assistant coach during the course of a normal season.

“We hunker down, watch the things we need to watch, decide what’s worth showing and what we can take care of later on at a different time,” Spiker said. “[Thursday] we woke up, we watched [game] film, we stretched, we ate breakfast/pre-game, and played.”

Spiker cited his five-year stretch as a Cornell assistant (2004-09) helping him understand the reality of playing on back-to-back days, though that doesn’t factor into the reality of waking up and playing the exact same opponent. 

Both teams were able to implement some changes from the first game into the second. Quinnipiac notably was able to stick with Drexel much closer after falling behind by as many as 18 in the first half on Wednesday; it was only a four-point halftime spread Thursday, and even that margin needed an NBA-range Wynter three at the buzzer to get there.

But the Dragons were able to adjust, never relenting the lead and closing strong to hold their largest lead at the final buzzer. 

“I thought they were really aggressive in their ball-screen defense, really trying to keep me out of the paint more than I was in the paint yesterday,” Wynter said. “I thought we made good adjustments as the game went on. Whatever team can make better adjustments on the fly has a better chance of winning.

“I felt like it helped us as a group,” the CAA Player of the Year candidate added. “We haven’t played together too much, we have a lot of returners but it’s a different group. It helped us realize what’s in front of us and just not to get too comfortable with one win, you need two.”

Though beating Quinnipiac (1-2) twice won’t necessarily translate to competing for the CAA title — Drexel (2-1) was picked third in the league’s preseason poll after finishing closer to the bottom of the standings the last few years — there were certainly some good takeaways from the two wins. 

Just a few days after allowing Pitt to shoot 62% from the floor in a season-opening, 83-74 loss, Drexel’s defense was much more stout, limiting Quinnipiac to 34.1% shooting in the first win and 40.7% in the second. 

Wynter enjoyed a strong two games, scoring 17 on Wednesday and following it up with a 23-point effort; through three games, he’s averaging 21.3 ppg and 5.3 apg, moving into a tie for 9th place all-time on the program’s career assist list in the process. James Butler, a redshirt junior and one of the nation’s top rebounders a year ago, scored 23 points and grabbed 20 rebounds across the two games. 

“We got two positive results, but I’d like to look at and see where our bodies are at and what we’re doing from a minutes standpoint and management and all of those things,” Spiker said. “We’re happy with the result, and we need to see.”

Wynter and Butler were the two preseason All-CAA First Team selections, so their strong play is unsurprising. It’s those around them who needed to play well, and so far that’s been happening as well.

Sophomore forward T.J. Bickerstaff continued his improved play to open the year, hitting double figures in both games; he’s averaging 13.3 ppg and 5.0 rpg. Zach Walton (11.7 ppg) continues to prove himself as a very good third or fourth scoring option. Another sophomore, Mate Okros (2.3 ppg) hasn’t found his shooting stroke yet, but it’s clear he’s doing plenty else on the court, including terrific defense without a single turnover in 95 minutes.

And all three freshmen have established themselves as capable rotation members, including 6-6 wing Lamar Oden, Jr., who had several key buckets down the stretch of the second win. A 3-pointer by Oden with 4:05 pushed the lead to 10, and he went 3-of-4 from the line in the closing minutes with a block as well.

“We knew what he could do, he does it all the time in practice,” Wynter said. “(Wednesday) he passed up a shot and probably the whole team got on him about it, he passed up a shot and it ended in a charge. We all got on him about it and today he stepped up and hit a big shot.”

Barring a scheduling change, Drexel’s slated to play its first home game this Sunday at 2 PM against Coppin State. The Eagles (0-1) feature several local prospects, including senior wing Koby Thomas, who averaged 13.3 ppg and 6.8 rpg last season.

That’s the first of three straight home games for the Dragons, who welcome a pair of Big 5 opponents in La Salle (Dec. 12) and St. Joe’s (Dec. 16) before traveling to FDU (Dec. 19); a home game against Siena (Dec. 22) closes out the non-con.

“We’re three games into a very, very long season, and we’ve got to do a really good job of understanding what we can do and work at it,” Spiker said. “Long way to go.”

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