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Year of the Dragon: Drexel building on breakthrough March

10/06/2021, 12:15am EDT
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Walk down the staircase at Drexel’s Daskalakis Athletic Center, descending one level from the main court, and a landing area presents two short hallways, facing each other. At the end of one are the men’s basketball offices; the women’s offices await down the other corridor.

They’re two programs existing in the same building but with their own agendas and direction — moving, as men’s head coach Zach Spiker said, “like ships [passing] in the night,” running their own courses, in their own seas.


Drexel men's basketball coach Zach Spiker, left, and women's basketball coach Amy Mallon, right, guided their respective teams to the NCAA Tournament last season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

There are shared facilities and goals, of course, and Spiker and his counterpart — women’s head coach Amy Mallon — consult often on various matters. Otherwise, they’re separate staffs, separate entities, with their own recruiting cycles, philosophies, coaching styles. But they share one crucial thing in common: a whole lot of hope and potential for the months ahead.

The 2021-22 season is perhaps the most pivotal ever in the DAC, no matter what side of the hallway you’re on. If all goes right, the corner of 34th and Market might become the next mid-major hotspot; if not, it could be just another ‘what if?’ in a city’s hoops history that’s seen too many others just like it.

For now, the atmosphere is nothing but optimistic.

“You got men's basketball, women's basketball, men's lacrosse, women's lacrosse, all coming off some historic runs,” Spiker said, “and to do it all at the same time? It's hard not to be excited when you walk in here and look around.”

It was, indeed, a special spring for Drexel basketball, and the athletics department as a whole.

Spiker’s group got it started, capturing the Colonial Athletic Association championship as the No. 6 seed after a stop-and-start regular season. Over the course of three days at James Madison University (March 7-9), Drexel downed No. 3 Charleston (80-75), No. 2 Northeastern (74-67), and No. 8 Elon (63-56) to earn a trip to March Madness for the first time since 1996 — six years before the Dragons moved into the CAA.

In the span of 72 hours, Drexel went from a 9-7 squad to one going dancing.

“I feel like after I watched them in the semifinals — I was like, they had the momentum,” Mallon said. “You just could feel it.”

The women started their own tournament run in Elon, North Carolina less than 48 hours after the men wrapped up their title, on the backs of an 11-8 (8-6) regular season, and that momentum seemed to transfer right over. They dispatched the No. 6 seeded hosts (65-59), No. 2 James Madison (79-76) and No. 1 Delaware (63-62) to secure the program’s second-ever March Madness bid.

“We literally beat the team that was picked to win it, the team that was the number one seed and the team that had the home court advantage,” Mallon said. “So I feel like that's pretty cool.”

Amy Mallon was an assistant coach on the first Drexel women's basketball team to advance to the NCAA Tournament and guided the Dragons back to the tournament last year as the head coach. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

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Spiker and the men, stuck in their separate hotel rooms in Indianapolis for NCAA Tournament quarantine protocols, watched from their laptops, their phones, their iPads.

“It was awesome, it was incredible,” Spiker said. “Our guys, the team chat, everyone was watching...the text messages and exchanges were awesome.”

Both teams’ NCAA Tournament experiences were brief. The men, given a No. 16 seed and matchup with top-seeded Illinois, were down by 18 at half and lost by 29. The women fared better, getting a No. 14 seed, led No. 3 seed Georgia by five after one quarter and were tied at halftime, but ultimately lost 67-53.

For both, it was a tease of an experience, held in empty arenas, the knowledge of where they were and what they’d achieved serving as a buoy throughout an otherwise trying time. Seeing the men’s and women’s lacrosse teams also appear in their respective NCAA tournaments a couple months later only further drove the point home.

“We're chasing that feeling again,” Spiker said. “Like you want more of it, and [to] keep it going.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

Mallon was an assistant back in 2008-09, when Drexel’s women went 24-9 (16-2), winning the CAA championship and going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time. The Dragons continued to have success under Denise Dillon, now the head coach at Villanova; eight of the next 10 seasons saw 19 wins or more, but a second Dance eluded them until this past spring.

“The first time, like not only the history of the program, but even the university [...] I think there was a lot to be celebrated, you know,” Mallon said. “And I think that moving forward, you realize how hard it is to get back there and actually do that.

I think (the players) realize that we have a lot more work to do. That approach I felt right away, it wasn't like, oh, we're going to get back. They're like, yeah, we want to get back there. But it's not that easy.”

Until their sudden breakthrough, the men hadn’t so much as sniffed March Madness since the 2011-12 season, when they came within a Frantz Massenant 3-pointer of taking VCU to overtime of the CAA championship game, and had to settle for an NIT quarterfinal run after going 25-5 in the regular season. Seven of the next nine seasons were played under .500, including the six prior to last year’s breakthrough. Prior to last season, they hadn’t been in the NCAA tournament since that 1996 appearance, the last of three consecutive trips.

Last year, coach Zach Spiker and the Dragons advanced to the men's NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996. Spiker is looking to build on that postseason success this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

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Both teams have back in the fold the most important pieces to the puzzle.

Thanks to the NCAA’s granting of a blanket eligibility waiver due to COVID, Mallon and the Dragon women get the services of CAA Defensive Player of the Year and All-Conference First Team selection Hannah Nihill (16.3 ppg, 3.8 apg) for a fifth year. Nihill, a 5-foot-3 dynamo from Cardinal O’Hara, is currently playing with Drexel’s field hockey team, attempting to lead them into the postseason before jumping right into hoops.

Also back are the team’s second and third-leading scorers, junior guard Keishana Washington (14.6 ppg) and senior forward Mariah Leonard (8.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg). Tessa Brugler, a 6-1 forward who averaged a double-double last year at Bucknell, will certainly shore up the frontcourt.

The men return their own First Team All-CAA selection in senior guard Camren Wynter (16.2 ppg, 5.2 apg) plus double-double threat James Butler (12.8 ppg, 9.2 rpg), though they’re without third-leading scorer Zach Walton (graduation) and fourth-leading scorer T.J. Bickerstaff (transfer). 

The addition of 6-6 grad transfer Melik Martin, who averaged better than a dozen points and nearly six rebounds per game last year at Monmouth, will help, while a talented sophomore class — Amari Williams, Xavier Bell and Lamar Oden, Jr. — needs to take a big step forward.

“I think there's a sense of urgency that we've got more to accomplish and more to achieve and more to do with this group,” Spiker said.

Just down the hallway, Mallon knows exactly how he feels. Confidence in an underlying ability is critical; overconfidence in the ease that might bring is fatal.

“You want the confidence of knowing, hey, we can do this,” she said. “Like we've been here, and it's not a surprise. At the same time, [I like] the ‘clean slate’ approach because that's how you get yourself better every day.”

Neither team will really know how things will go until Nov. 9, when they each tip off their season at the DAC; the women get Marist at 5 pm and the men get D-III Neumann at 8 pm, revealing their NCAA banner beforehand. Three days later, the men will host Fairleigh Dickinson at 5 pm and the women follow by hosting St. Joe’s, dropping their own banner. 

Six weeks after that, the 18-game CAA slate begins. And while both Drexel coaches would like to know by then if the lessons of yesteryear have paid off, they each know it only takes three days in March to turn it all around.

“I hope there's a different voice in the huddles,” Spiker said. “I think our guys saw that improvement, saw that success. And we want to take that next jump with it.”


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