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Drexel's progress continues as Dragon men hunt top-four CAA seed

02/29/2024, 11:15am EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Zach Spiker isn’t a big-picture guy.

“Detail-oriented” was the Drexel men’s coach’s term for it, but it goes deeper than that. He’s not just detail-oriented, he’s detail-focused, not one to look at things like winning streaks or playoff scenarios or prognostications. 

Zach Spiker (above) and Drexel are within sight of a 20-win season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

But even the most process-driven guys have to admit that processes are about progress, and by that measure, Spiker’s processes are succeeding. 

Going into Thursday night’s game against Stony Brook, Drexel is 18-11 overall, with an 11-5 record in the Coastal Athletic Association. It’s the most wins in any season in Spiker’s eight years at Drexel, both overall and in league play, with two games left in the regular season. 

It’s also the latest step in a year-by-year progress that’s seen the Dragons win more games each year than the one before it. The only outlier was the COVID year, when they went 12-8, though that .600 winning percentage was their best until this year. That was also the year that Spiker guided his program to its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1996.

The Dragons’ strong position as this season comes to an end is on the backs of a 7-0 start to league play, though four losses in five games followed. Drexel bounced back with wins in three of four, and now has solid opportunities to close out the season strong in Stony Brook (16-13, 9-7) and Northeastern (12-17, 7-9).

Spiker’s aware of what these games mean. His players certainly do, too. They’re not talking about it.

“We have really kind of kept it very micro, very simple, very focused, on opponent, next opponent — how they defend, what they’re good at, scoring offensively, and what we need to do,” Spiker said. “We haven’t talked at all about ‘this would help the playoff picture, this would help our win total,’ we literally come in and just talk about trying to go 1-0.”

As to why this group is doing that more successfully than others have, Spiker pointed to its collective experience. Starting center Amari Williams, the Dragon’s second-leading scorer (12.2 ppg) and leading rebounder (7.9 ppg), is a fourth-year starter. Luke House (7.9 ppg) is a fifth-year college player and fourth-year Dragon; Mate Okros (6.6 ppg) has played in more than 130 games in a Drexel uniform; Lucas Monroe (6.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg) has played in over 112 games between his four years at Penn and Drexel.

Even its youngest member of the starting lineup, sophomore Justin Moore, has 53 games and 50 starts under his belt, with almost 1,500 minutes of court time already. Spiker said due to all of that experience, he’s noticed a difference during the way his team handles timeouts, a benefit during the playoff push.

“We as a staff go into our huddle and sit down, they’re not just waiting to hear something,” he said. “They probably have addressed it and at least already have a plan in place, if we’re not on the same page, of what needs to happen.”

Sophomore guard Justin Moore (above) has shot the ball well during CAA play. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Spiker also has the deepest rotation of his tenure. Ten different players have played in at least 20 games and are averaging at least 15 mpg, with Moore leading the team at 28.7 mpg. Backup forward Garfield Turner and backup point guard Jamie Bergens both have provided quality minutes, and reserve wing Yame Butler just scored a season-high 14 points.

On top of that, Moore is playing his best basketball yet, the Archbishop Wood product averaging 13.6 ppg and 3.9 apg over his last 16 games.

If Drexel can win two more games, it’ll snap a string of 12 years without a 20-win season, going back to the 29-win 2011-12 season which saw the Dragons just on the outside of the NCAA Tournament picture. 

Drexel comes into this last weekend of CAA play tied for second place in the league with UNC-Wilmington and Hofstra, two games behind defending champ Charleston. Towson, at 10-6, is one game behind; Delaware, Monmouth and Stony Brook, all 9-7, have only the faintest chance at finishing in the top four in the league. 

UNC-Wilmington and Hofstra play each other Thursday night, and Hofstra travels to Charleston to close out the season. Chances are good that Drexel can finish as high as second in the league, but it can’t lose its last two.

The last time Drexel had a top-four seed in the CAA Tournament was in 2022, going 15-14 (10-8 CAA) and losing to Delaware in the league quarterfinals. Before that it was 2014, when the Dragons finished fourth in what was then a nine-team league, going 16-13 overall (8-8 CAA).

That double-bye in the tournament has become especially important as the league has expanded from seven teams in 2012-13 to 14 teams this year, thanks to the addition of Stony Brook, Campbell, NC A&T, Monmouth and Hampton. 

That means the CAA Tournament, which takes place in Washington, D.C, is now a five-day affair. The No. 11-14 seeds play the opening round on Friday, March 8, joined the following day by seeds 5-10 for a four-game second round, with the top four seeds playing those winners in the quarterfinals on March 10.

Winning five games in five days will be nearly impossible; winning three in three is a good deal easier than winning four in four. Even if Drexel’s trying not to think about the importance of these two games, winning them could mean the difference between dancing or not.

“Certainly it’s one less game that everyone’s got to play along the way, though I think we have a deep team, as deep a team as we’ve had,” Spiker said, while admitting “you want to have the biggest possible chance of success.”

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