James Butler (above) and Drexel are one win from their first NCAA Tournament in 25 years. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Drexel’s got plenty of options on its roster for clutch 3-point shooting.
All-CAA guard Camren Wynter is an obvious option. Senior wing Zach Walton and junior wing Mate Okros have both shown themselves to be more-than-capable outside shooters. Freshmen Xavier Bell and Lamar Oden Jr. are young, but both perimeter threats who can knock down open 3s.
But James Butler? The physical post-up threat who seldom strays past the foul line extended? The guy with seven made 3-pointers in 86 career games?
Yeah, sure, why not.
The Dragons’ junior forward connected on multiple 3-pointers for the first time in his college career, none bigger than the one he hit down the stretch in a CAA semifinal against Northeastern on Monday night. The Huskies had cut a 13-point Dragons lead down to one with 6:21 remaining, and looked ready to turn on the afterburners and advance to their fourth consecutive lead title game.
Instead, first Okros connected on back-to-back triples to push the advantage back up to five points before Butler got an open look from the right wing and buried it, making it an eight-point lead with four minutes to play and igniting the DU bench.
“I knew it was going in,” Wynter said. “JB’s a good shooter and in practices he shoots guard numbers...he’s making a good point of why he should get more open looks.”
Drexel never looked back, advancing to its first CAA Championship game since 2012 on the backs of a 74-67 win.
The two 3-pointers Butler hit were only his third and fourth of the season, on his fourth and fifth attempts. For his career — three seasons at Drexel and four games at Navy as a freshman — he’s now 9-for-18 from deep, certainly not a bad conversion percentage. He almost had a third 3-pointer against Northeastern, hitting a long two-pointer with two minutes left to keep the advantage at eight.
Considering Butler already boasts a nice mid-range game and apparently makes it rain in practice, it begs the question: why don’t we see this shooting display more often?
“He’s shot a whole lot in his career, they just haven’t been in games yet,” Drexel head coach Zach Spiker said. “James Butler took advantage of the pandemic and James Butler evolved his game...giving JB that freedom to do that, JB took it whole ‘nother level during the pandemic.”
Butler finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds for the Dragons, who for the second night in a row had four players in double figures. Wynter had 14 points, six rebounds, and four assists; senior wing Zach Walton had 15 points and three assists; freshman Xavier Bell, moved into the starting lineup late in the season, had 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
Drexel committed 16 turnovers and only forced six, but made up for it with a 38-26 advantage on the boards thanks to Butler and sophomore forward T.J. Bickerstaff, who grabbed 11 rebounds along with scoring six points. The Dragons also shot 26-of-50 (52%) overall and 8-of-16 (50%) from deep, plus 14-of-16 from the foul line, including 10-of-10 in the final 64 seconds.
“We have a lot of scorers on our team, a lot of guys that can do different things, so we just share the ball and whoever’s hot is aggressive,” said Wynter, who shot 6-of-11 from the floor and 2-of-4 from deep in the win. “I think we just play off each other well and that’s what we did tonight.
Northeastern got 30 points from standout freshman Jahmyl Telfort, who was 11-for-21 overall and 4-of-6 from deep. But they did a much better job frustrating sophomore guard Tyson Walker, who got 23 points but needed 25 shots to get there (10-25 FG, 1-8 3PT); Northeastern only got seven assists on 26 field goals.
“I thought we did a good job of making everything tough, we had multiple bodies on (Walker) and we were just trying to tire him out and make him take a lot of contested shots and I think we did just that,” Wynter said. “Guys did a great job on him and guys played their role tonight.”
Drexel came into the CAA tournament as the No. 6 seed, after compiling a 9-7 (4-5 CAA) regular-season record. But that seed doesn’t reflect the fact that the Dragons played seven of their nine league games on the road this season and had four separate CAA weekends canceled due to opponents having COVID, nor the fact that they didn’t play either of the teams at the bottom of the, or the fact that four of their five losses came by five or fewer points.
In the championship game, they’ll play No. 8 seed Elon, which will play its fourth game in four days Tuesday night — but the Phoenix are also riding a seven-game winning streak. If Drexel wins, it’ll be dancing for the first time since 1996; Elon has never been to March Madness since transitioning to Division I at the turn of the 21st century.
“We haven’t thought about the seeding, we don’t look at the number next to any team, we just look at the team itself,” Wynter said. “The biggest game is the next game so it doesn’t matter what they’re ranked, they’re on the schedule, we have to prepare for them and come in there with the mindset that we’re going to win.
“One thing I came here for was to get a conference championship, and we’re one game away.”