Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: This piece is one of a series of six that the CoBL staff is putting together on how the 2020-21 season went for each of the City 6 and how the future’s shaping up. Links to the rest of the series will go here as they’re published: Drexel | La Salle | Penn | Saint Joseph’s | Temple | Villanova)
Zach Spiker’s Dragons had plenty of cause for optimism going into Spiker’s fifth year with the program. There were returning all-league players combining with talented underclassmen to give Spiker more talent, depth, and experience than he’d had thus far in his years in University City, and they were picked No. 3 in the CAA’s preseason poll as a result.
The 2020-21 season ended up being a wild ride for Drexel, with stops and starts, frustrating losses, and a major accomplishment all thrown in the mix.
Read ahead for all you need to know about the Dragons’ 2020-21 season:
Season in Brief
Camren Wynter (above, last season) had a standout season for the Dragons, setting new career bests on multiple categories. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
After a season-opening loss to Pitt in which Drexel went down by 15 early and never recovered, the Dragons’ non-league schedule actually went pretty well: they took a pair from Quinnipiac on the road and beat Coppin State and St. Joe’s at home, losing only to La Salle as they were 5-2 heading into the start of league play.
Like many other programs around the country, Drexel found it tough to stay consistent due to a number of COVID pauses — however, none of the five different back-to-back series the Dragons had cancelled between January and February were due to a positive test within their own program. They only played three games between Jan. 23 and Feb. 26 (all on the road, at two of the league’s top programs in JMU and Hofstra), and never had a chance to get any sort of rhythm or momentum going on the court.
At the conclusion of the regular season, Drexel was 9-7 overall (4-5 CAA), but it was impossible to get a good feeling for just where that group fit into the league or what their ceiling really was. Going into the CAA tournament in early March as the No. 6 seed, it felt like anything could happen in Harrisonburg, Va.
How it Ended
Drexel picked a great time to play its best basketball of the season, winning three straight on James Madison’s campus, taking down Charleston (80-75), Northeastern (74-67) and No. 8 Elon (63-56) on consecutive days to win the CAA title for the first time since joining the league in 2001-02.
The Dragons’ first NCAA Tournament appearance in 25 years was short-lived, however. Given a No. 16 seed by the selection committee, Drexel faced off against top-seeded Illinois in the first round; DU led after five minutes, but Illinois pulled away for a 19-point halftime advantage and used a 14-2 run out of the break to storm away to a 78-49 win.
Drexel finished the season with a 12-8 record (4-5 CAA).
Most Valuable Player: The Drexel engine starts with Camren Wynter, and the all-league guard took another step forward in his junior season. Winter started off the season playing the best ball of his career in his first seven games (19.9 ppg, .517 3PT%) and though he wasn’t able to sustain that level of efficiency, the 6-4 combo guard from Long Island did set career bests in scoring (16.2 ppg) and assists (5.2 apg), as well as free-throw shooting (82.7%). The 2018-19 CAA Rookie of the Year has also become a better 3-point shooter as his college career has gone on, improving from 33.3% as a freshman to 35.5% as a sophomore and 41.5% as a junior.
Most Improved: There was no doubt about this one: the most improved player on the Drexel roster was sophomore T.J. Bickerstaff. The 6-9 wing/forward more than doubled his scoring average from his freshman (4.8 ppg) to sophomore year (10.2 ppg), upping his rebounds from 3.5 to 5.2/game, and improving his field-goal percentage from 42.1% to 51.3%. He also took better care of the ball, going from 5.2 turnovers per 100 possessions down to 4.2.
Watch Out For: One of three true freshmen who got a good helping of D-I experience last season, Xavier Bell really came on strong at the end of the season. Mr. Kansas Basketball as a senior at Andover Central (Kans.), Bell averaged 4.0 ppg and 1.0 apg on the season, but moved into the starting lineup down the stretch and averaged 9.0 ppg and 1.8 apg while making 9-of-16 from 3-point range over the final six games of the season.
Don’t Forget About: Zach Walton. A JUCO transfer from Edmonds CC (Wash.) back in 2018, Walton only played seven games in his first season at DU due to injury, then started 20 of 33 as a redshirt junior, where he averaged 12.2 ppg but shot just 26.5% from 3-point range. The 6-6 wing scored less (10.5 ppg) as a senior but on three fewer shots per game (10.9 to 7.9), making 39.8% of his 3-pointers and being that efficient scoring option on the wing the Dragons needed.
Maybe Next Year: As a sophomore in 2019-20, Coletrane Washington was a valuable bench piece for Spiker, averaging 5.1 ppg and shooting 43.9% from 3-point range (43-of-98), giving them a floor-stretcher who averaged 14.2 mpg. But Washington was hurt all year and didn’t play a minute for the Dragons this past season; while Drexel shot the ball generally well without him (see below), especially later in the season, there were definitely times they could have used another shooter on the floor. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s changed and fits into the rotation when he (hopefully) re-takes the court this winter.
James Butler (above, last season) was still a force in the paint for Drexel, despite seeing his minutes slightly drop. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
37.1%: Drexel hasn’t been known as much of a sharpshooting program over the years; Bruiser Flint had some teams that hit more than 35%, but those squads were few and far between. But the Dragons had been increasingly getting better from beyond the arc over the last four years, from 32.1% in 2017-18 up to 37.1% this year, which was 40th in Division I hoops against Division I competition according to KenPom; that’s the program’s best finish nationally since 2012 (37.8%, 36th).
12: In addition to a dozen being Drexel’s number of wins this season, it was also the number of games the Dragons had postponed, from their season opener against Penn State to their non-conference finale against Siena, then five different CAA series over the next few months.
7: One of the best rebounders in the country in 2019-20 (11.7 rpg, 5th nationally), James Butler was still a force in the paint for Drexel as a redshirt junior, averaging 12.8 ppg and 9.2 rpg, but he wasn’t quite as dominant. He only had seven double-doubles, compared to 20 the season before (albeit in fewer games), and also saw his minutes drop from 32.6/game down to 28.9. With freshman forward Amari Williams showing flashes of potential, it wouldn’t be the worst thing if Butler doesn’t need to carry the entire load down load next season.
The Dragons only had one departure this offseason: Bickerstaff, who left shortly after the season and ended up not long after at Boston College with new head coach Earl Grant, who had previously coached against Drexel while at College of Charleston.
To help replace the production gap on the wing, Drexel has added to the program Melik Martin, a Philly-area native who spent his high school years in the central part of the state, where he starred for York Catholic (Pa.) and got a late scholarship offer to attend Monmouth. In four years at Monmouth, the 6-6 small forward averaged 5.6 ppg in 114 games (30 starts), but averaged 12.5 ppg and 5.7 rpg in a breakout senior year, starting all 20 games for the Hawks.
The extra COVID year of eligibility is going to put a lot of programs in interesting places with their rosters, and Drexel is certainly amongst that group. Spiker and his staff only have one incoming freshman this fall: Terrence Butler, a 6-6 wing from Bishop McNamara (Md.), who gives them depth at a position they have plenty of right now but suddenly won’t in the near future.
What really determines where Spiker and his staff need to go for the 2022 class — which can also feature immediately-eligible undergraduate transfers, though those won’t be known until next spring — depends on who stays their extra year and who doesn’t. Will Butler, who will already be in his sixth year of college this winter yet will only be a redshirt junior by eligibility, want to stick around for a seventh? Doubtful. Others, who knows.
Spiker has a good trio to build around in Bell, Williams and fellow freshman Lamar Oden Jr., all of whom maintain their freshman eligibility after seeing minutes last season, but the Dragons are overall an old roster right now and will likely look a lot different in 2022-23. What remains to be seen is whether Spiker and his staff can take advantage of the momentum they built up from their 2021 NCAA Tournament appearance, and a roster that looks built to win plenty this fall, or if they just caught magic in a jar that week in Virginia.