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City 6 Preview: Drexel's Spiker hoping roster reno leads to better defense

10/15/2018, 11:15am EDT
By Josh Verlin

Drexel coach Zach Spiker (above) added five new pieces to the roster this offseason, with two more transfers gaining eligibility. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Before the start of the 2018-19 season just like before every other season in his coaching career, Drexel coach Zach Spiker did some office cleaning. Away went the old stat sheets, the unnecessary clutter of seasons gone by, the bricks stacked against the wall that represented his team’s defensive efforts from the year before.

Out with the old, in with the new.

Last season, his second at Drexel, Spiker had a 15-man roster, 10 of which were players he and his staff had brought in since their March 2016 hirings. But four of the other five were seniors, recruited under the prior regime, who all played a significant amount -- Austin Williams, Tyshawn Myles, Sammy Mojica and Miles Overton -- leaving the Dragons’ actual rotation a mix of Spiker’s talent and that acquired by his predecessor, Bruiser Flint.

And though Spiker often liked to say he claimed those Flint recruits as his own players, and though he certainly leaned heavily on that group the last couple years, there was always going to be something of a disconnect, players recruited to play Flint’s slow, grind-it-out style suddenly forced to learn Spiker’s uptempo, run-and-gun system. The results have generally shown that out, as the Dragons are just 24-43 (9-27 CAA) in Spiker’s first two years.

That group is gone now, though, replaced by a mix of high school and junior college recruits, plus a few Division I transfers, who have reshaped the Dragons’ roster in a major way over the last 24 months. The only holdover left is redshirt sophomore Sam Green, who was recruited by Flint but has only ever played for Spiker since his arrival in 2016.

“Some ways, I don’t want it to be any different, I want to assume nothing,” Spiker said, seated in his office in the Daskalakis Athletic Center before the Dragons began practice earlier this month. “It’s this group, identifying what we need to do for this group to be successful.”

Still, there’s no denying that this the first time it’s a rotation that Spiker’s rotation is truly his rotation. But does that mean he’s happy with the pieces in place, especially after missing out on several local prospects on the recruiting trail the last couple years?

“We’re trending in that direction, yeah,” Spiker said. “I’m greedy, as every coach is. [But] we’re trending in that direction.”

From an on-court continuity standpoint, there’s going to be more turnover from last season to this one than any Drexel team in the last few seasons. Exactly 50 percent of the team’s minutes departed in those four seniors plus junior Tramaine Isabell, who used the grad transfer route to go to Saint Louis after one incredibly productive season in a Dragons uniform (21.0 ppg/7.5 rpg/3.4 apg).

This group did a get a chance to gel early, going down to Australia for four games in August against professional squads, including a matchup against a Sydney Kings squad that features the likes of former NBA big man Andrew Bogut. And though the Dragons lost three of four games Down Under, Spiker and his staff came back encouraged by what they saw.

“I think my biggest takeaway was this group is capable of playing very, very hard,” Spiker said. “And we need to get to that point quickly. I don’t want to say harder, I don’t want to be comparing, but this group is capable of defending better than we have in the past.”

Ah yes, defense.

While Spiker’s high-paced offensive approach has certainly made the Dragons a more exciting team to watch offensively the last few years, it’s come at the cost of making what was once a proud defensive program into one of the worst teams in Division I on that side of the ball.

According to hoops statistician Ken Pomeroy, who had Drexel as high as No. 20 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency as recently as 2010-11, the Dragons were 292nd last year, allowing around 1.10 points per possession, a slight drop from their No. 283 ranking the year prior.

They were awful at forcing turnovers, doing so on just 15.6 percent of possessions (318th). Keeping their opponents off the glass was a problem, as Drexel got just 69.3 percent of available defensive rebounds (267th), and they weren’t good at forcing difficult shots, either.

“Some of it’s length,” Spiker said. “Kurk [Lee], Tramaine [Isabell] and Troy Harper on the floor, it’s not much length, those are three smaller guys. I think we’ve added length -- Zach Walton, Cam Wynter, Coletrane [Washington]’s extremely long.”

If the addition of the 6-6 Walton and 6-4 Washington on the wings will help, so should the addition of 6-10 redshirt freshman Timmy Perry Jr. in the middle, plus 6-9 Navy transfer James Butler. It might take time, but the potential is there for this team to get a few more stops, and thus improve on last year’s 13-20 (6-12 CAA) record.

“We are what we’re going to emphasize,” Spiker said. “We’ve got to do a better job of hammering that home early on.”

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