By Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
Zach Spiker is quick to point something out — and it’s a valid item. The Drexel Dragons’ head coach for the last seven years has seen his team’s win total increase for seven-straight seasons (with the exception of the shortened COVID-19 2020-21 season). Under Spiker, the upward trajectory of the Dragons’ win total has grown from nine wins, to 13, to 14, to making the NCAA Tournament in 2020-21 (before the season ended), to 15, to 17 last season.
It’s the only Big 5 program to have done that.
Yes, you heard it right: It’s the only Big 5 program to have done that.
That’s because in April, the Big 5 officially welcomed Drexel and will include the Dragons in the new series format that will culminate in a Big 5 tripleheader at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday, Dec. 2. What’s more is Spiker will have 6-foot-10 forward Amari Williams (13.7 ppg) back for another season, after leading the Dragons in scoring and see the continued growth of 6-3 guard Justin Moore (9.6).
It’s a team with promise, and with some health, could surprise a few folks in early December. If the Dragons get off to a good start, they are very capable of going to their second NCAA Tournament within the last four years — something that has not been done at Drexel in close to 30 years.
In 2022-23, Drexel finished over .500 (17-15) for the third-straight year, which last happened 18 years ago. The Dragons were once the red-headed stepchild on the periphery of the Big 5. They could be a problem in their first year of being “officially in” the vaunted group.
We talked to Spiker earlier this month about the success the program has had under him and where it is going as part of our series of City 6 Q+As. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited for readability and length:
Drexel coach Zach Spiker talks at practice before last season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
City Of Basketball Love: What does joining the Big 5 mean for you and the Drexel program?
Zach Spiker: I think us joining the Big 5 is the result of the momentum and the success that we created during our time here. Now there is a lot that went on in the history in what Bruiser Flint built here and what coach (Bill) Herrion established. You could understand we all feel the same way Eddie Burke did. We all want to be a part of this. It’s great that it is happening. Many people texted me that it is about time. There is a reason to have a lot of positive perspective and momentum in and around our program with going to the Big 5 and talking about the progress that we’ve made in seven straight seasons. It’s a great opportunity for us to continue to work alongside the other five programs and represent Philadelphia basketball. We all have a goal of putting the best product on the floor. I think for the last 50 years, they’ve done a great job of that. This was the first year in 47 years that a team from the Big 5 wasn’t in the NCAA Tournament. The reality is I think we should look at it in a different way. One city has produced a participant in the NCAA Tournament for 47 years. We don’t talk about the (California) Bay area in the same perspective, with Cal, Stanford, Santa Clara, USF, and San Jose State 40 miles down the road. They’re like the ’Nova out there (geographically), a little outside the city. We don’t keep score for them, or the Pitt area, or a lot of the schools around Boston. They don’t even have a streak to talk about (laughs). It goes to show you this is the best city for college basketball in the country and now we’re all in one category — the Big 5.
You know what is funny? Can you name me a conference that the number actually matches the number of members in their conference (laughs)? I have friends and buddies asking me if it’s going to be ‘the Big 6.’ Does the Big 12 have 12 teams? Does the Big 10 have 10 teams? Does the Pac-10 have 10? It’s the Atlantic 10, not the Atlantic 15. The Big 5 is the brand. We are part of it. We’re honored and humbled to be a part of it. We will do everything we can to not only represent all of the Big 5, but represent those past, great Drexel teams that deserved recognition as a part of great Philadelphia basketball history.
CoBL: You have your leading scorer Amari Williams back. What kind of steps did he take in improving last year?
ZS: When you hear Amari Williams’ name, you think of his defensive presence as two-time CAA Defensive Player of the Year, and his elite ability to pass. That is what has gotten him the attention of NBA scouts. Amari is in a very rare category of players who leads in every category: scoring, assists, steals, rebounds. He led us in all of those major categories the whole season. He’s our leading scorer coming back, but you’re talking about a team that was No. 16 in the nation in points allowed and led the CAA in defense. Some big men are wired differently. He’s wired to block shots and has great vision to pass. He took strides in getting and creating his own buckets. One of the biggest strides Amari Williams took was not seen on paper. Two years ago, he was thrust into the starting lineup when there was an injury at his position. The following year, he had a serious injury and never complained about it. He played and gutted through it. Big men are easy targets, right? They’re not running the floor hard enough; they’re not blocking shots. What’s going on? Amari was a victim of that. He is a real tough kid. He played through a lot of physical adversity that no one knew about. I am excited to get a 100-percent version of himself to see what he can be like.
CoBL: You have four of your top five scorers returning, with Moore, Lamar Oden Jr. and Luke House also back. You have a nice situation here, don’t you?
ZS: The only player we really lose is Coletrane Washington. You can say we have 12 of our top 13 scorers coming back. We have zero players in the transfer portal. I’ll repeat that: We have zero players in the portal. That’s a big deal in college sports today. Our guys are at Drexel. They’re going to get a great degree. Of all of these things that we’ve talked about, our biggest weapon is our continuity. Our staff has stayed intact. I think our guys are all hungry to come back and do something special next year.
CoBL: What type of strides do you see Justin Moore making his sophomore year?
ZS: Justin missed the last month of the season, from February 3rd on. He didn’t play or get a full week of practice with a shoulder injury until we went to the conference tournament. Justin’s year was like any other freshmen in America who gets a chance to play. He had ups, he had downs. He understood and had to adjust to the physicality of D-I college basketball. Our league is physical. In our conference tournament, there were a couple of screens that looked like tackles on Sunday for the Eagles. There were a couple of linebackers out there banging three-pointers (laughs). Justin is a true freshman. The year before, he was playing at Archbishop Wood. He got better with every game experience this year, whether it was having to chase a guy like Isaiah Thompson from Florida Gulf Coast, a really good fifth-year point guard who didn’t play at Purdue. No one sees the Drexel-Florida Gulf Coast game in November as an incredible learning opportunity for our point guard. Justin played against a boatload of fifth-year point guards and he played well. Justin got better and the version you saw of him as we started in league play was the best version of his season. I thought he had a really strong conference tournament. But when you go from not practicing in a month to two games back-to-back, eventually some physical wear will take place.
CoBL: How are Shane Blakeney and Kobe MaGee doing?
ZS: If I could give you the list of players we had hurt last year, it would be of value: Amari Williams, Mate Okros, Justin Moore, Yame Butler, Jamie Bergens and Shane Blakeney. We only had four players play in every game last year. How about that? Four players play in every game: Lamar Oden, Garfield Turner, Okros and Luke House. We lost 70-percent of our scoring and brought eight new players in, still won more games than we did the year before and lost no one in the portal. We are very, very excited for next season. Shane fought leg injuries. We led the league in crutches (laughs). Kobe, when given the opportunity, was very aggressive and hit some big shots for us, one down the stretch against La Salle. He’s incredibly coachable and had a great season in the weight room. We’re expecting Shane to make a big jump.
CoBL: Can you talk about some of your incoming freshmen? I know La Salle’s Horace Simmons is coming in and may be able to help you his freshman year.
ZS: People don’t know his competitive nature. Playing for Philly Pride, I saw that. He will not be playing the five for us. I think Horace is a great get for our program. Coletrane is our only major loss. Horace is the only one we have coming in.
CoBL: How much better can Drexel be next season?
ZS: You have a veteran group and this will be about creating a little more offensive diversity. It will come down to what the individual work is like. You can have slogans and phrases, but what matters is older teams are better teams and I think we can take a jump.
CoBL: Help me out with this. You managed to keep teams point totals down (62.4 ppg), allowing teams to shoot 42.5-percent last season.
ZS: I don’t hate that (42.5%) number. Teams hit three pointers (33.5%). Our two-point defense was pretty good. We have to sure up our perimeter defense. That’s a big chunk of it right there. I think we can be better not letting people get to the rim. There are areas we can improve. We were first (overall) in the CAA in defense. I think we can be more physical and stronger on defense. We need to be better in two areas: We were 12th in the CAA in two different categories, three-point shooting and free throws. The last two years we haven’t been very good in those areas, but prior to that, we were No. 1. We need to get back to making free throws and making more three-pointers.
CoBL: I see the pieces here. I see the job that you and your staff have done with the rise of this program. So, Zach, I’m going to put it straight out to you in conclusion: Entering your eighth season, is this team going to be your best team?
ZS: It has a chance to be. We’re trying to be better than we were the year before. We’re excited about what we can become. We need to get healthy and continue to emphasize the details that make us a good defensive team and emphasize the areas where we have to improve on on offense. Continuity is big.
By the way, you have to get new gear. No more Navy hoodies like the one I saw you wearing at Swarthmore (laughs).
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.