Cam Wynter (above, in 2019) won the 2021 CAA Tournament MVP Award. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Pandemic aside, Drexel’s 2020-21 season looked suspiciously similar to the eight which came before it. Until — thanks to a tremendous finish — it wasn’t.
In the span of one month, the Dragons went from a team unable to string wins together to one celebrating a Colonial Athletic Association championship on the floor at James Madison on Tuesday night. And they did it while barely playing a competitive game, COVID cancellations keeping the Dragons grounded.
Then four wins in Harrisonburg (Va.) changed everything, and Drexel now finds itself headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Malik Rose led the way to a North Atlantic Conference title in 1996. The turnaround could give you whiplash.
“No one put their head down, we never felt sorry for ourselves,” said Camren Wynter, Drexel’s junior point guard and the 2021 CAA Tournament MVP. “Kept grinding, kept working in practice...and we just put it all together.”
It’s not that this Drexel squad didn’t have the pieces to put together: An all-CAA lead guard in Wynter and a terrific double-double threat down low in James Butler; a veteran roster with five upperclassmen in the rotation supplemented by a couple experienced sophomores and several promising freshmen.
But just like every season since Drexel’s 2011-12 squad — which went 29-7 and made it to both the CAA championship and NIT quarterfinals — the pandemic-shortened year wasn’t anything to write home about. During that span, Drexel only had one winning season (going 16-14 in 2013-14) but otherwise ranged from 'mediocre' to 'terrible,' bottoming out with a six-win campaign in 2015-16, Bruiser Flint's last in University City.
Sure, Drexel opened up this year 5-2, but four of the five teams they beat finished the season ranked 286th or worse (out of 355 Division I teams) on KenPom, Saint Joseph’s (#198) the only exception.
The CAA league schedule that followed saw Drexel unable to finish close games, losing four of its first eight by five points or fewer. After a 79-74 loss to Hofstra on Feb. 7, the Dragons were 8-7 overall but 3-5 in league play, in danger of becoming a bottom-four seed in the 10-team league for the fourth time in Zach Spiker’s five years and sixth out of the last seven overall.
Then the cancellations started to pile up. Drexel had already seen planned weekends against UNCW (Jan. 2-3), Elon (Jan. 23-24) and Northeastern (Jan. 30-31) pushed back when the other programs had positive COVID tests. Added to that were the home-and-home against rival Delaware (Feb. 11 + 13) and then a home set against Towson (Feb. 20-21).
Instead of gearing up for the postseason, the Dragons were stuck in practice mode. So they practiced. And, as the Drexel players and coaches said multiple times in press conferences Tuesday night, that’s when everything clicked.
“We always knew that we had a chance to win this thing, and we never had any doubt in our mind,” redshirt senior wing Zach Walton said. “Heading into the tournament we had a lot of time to practice and get better at the things we needed to get better at, and I think it showed this weekend.”
It wasn’t Drexel’s first long layoff of the season. The Dragons also didn’t play between Dec. 19 and Jan. 9 thanks to Christmas break and those UNCW cancellations, but the holiday (and the fact that the players needed to quarantine for a few days upon return to campus) didn’t help the team’s development.
The second layoff, with everybody on campus and healthy, was an opportunity for the entire program to step back and take a look at itself, coaches included.
“We can’t go 90 miles an hour every day all the time when you’ve got 19 days in between a game, and not knowing when your next game is,” Spiker said. “So we had to get creative.”
With every weekend’s games up in the air, the Dragons’ staff decided to treat each week of practices like they were building up for competition, and then found ways to fill the gaps when the games were ultimately cancelled. One weekend, practice ended with an intra-team scrimmage the staff dubbed ‘The Hunger Games’: The losing team of eight then played 4-on-4, the losers then played 2-on-2, and finally a 1-on-1 game that ended with the team running around the gym celebrating a game-winner like they'd just knocked out a No. 1 seed.
Call it a hopeful rehearsal for the future.
Another weekend featured a memorable game of dodgeball that Wynter especially seemed to enjoy, according to his coach.
“The MVP of the 2021 CAA tournament is hiding on top of lockers and I’m chasing him around, he’s chasing me with dodgeballs,” Spiker said. “We weren’t just on the court, we’re in different levels of the DAC, it was incredible.”
Mate Okros (above) shot 12-of-17 from 3-point range in Drexel's last four games. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Whatever the Dragons did those weeks, it worked. They got back Feb. 26 on the same court they’d take down the rest of the league, beating James Madison 84-78. Four Dragons scored in double figures while Mate Okros hit 5-of-5 from 3-point range, two qualities that carried through the league tournament.
“We won that game, and I think it did give us some confidence, but honestly I don’t know if that game gave us as much confidence as the two weeks building up to it and what we were doing,” Spiker said. “You can’t always control what happens to you but you can control how you handle the circumstances.
“We went 19 days in league play without a game...and came down here to a regular-season game against the first-place team and won. So we felt like we were getting better.”
In beating Charleston, Northeastern, and then finally Elon to win the CAA title, Drexel certainly looked like a changed team. Not that their players were doing anything radically different from before, necessarily; Wynter was still scoring and running the offense, Butler still vacuuming up rebounds, Walton a strong complimentary option who can also get his shot off in late-clock situations. But all the parts were clicking at once: Matej Juric’s defense, Okros’ 3-point shooting, freshman Xavier Bell playing his best ball of the season, Tim Perry Jr. grabbing nine rebounds in 10 minutes in the championship game.
The clutch shots that might have clanked off iron, like Walton’s contested 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer against Elon, went clean through the net. The defensive stands the Dragons needed to make, they held firm. The momentum-killing turnovers… well, there were still some turnovers. But the shooting, rebound and defense were good enough to overcome.
And so it was Wynter, Spiker and all the rest crying tears of joy on Tuesday night, celebrating a tournament run that seemed to come out of nowhere. After eight seasons without a winning league record, nine years since the last time the Dragons felt like a factor in the CAA, two decades after they joined the league, they were going to hear their names called on Selection Sunday.
It had been a disappointing decade for Drexel. Until it wasn't.
“We’re just hoping that this is the start of a new culture, a winning culture here at Drexel,” Walton said, “and hoping in the years to come that we can continue this culture.”