25 years. That’s how long it has been since the Drexel Dragons Men’s Basketball team made an appearance in the NCAA March Madness tournament. In 1996, The Dragons made it to the second round of the tournament as a 12 seed, only to lose to Memphis. Fast forward to 2021, and the Dragons are finally heading to the big dance once again. Their season was impacted severely by COVID-19, causing the Dragons to have 12 games canceled—more than any other Colonial Athletic Association team in the conference.
Despite the number of games that Drexel lost in the regular season, they still managed to finish the regular season with an 11-7 record, which ranked sixth-best in the conference. This year’s tournament was held at James Madison University. Due to COVID-19, the only fans allowed to be in attendance were family members. In order to qualify for the tournament, all the Dragons needed to do was win three games in a row, which is exactly what they did.
In the quarterfinals, Drexel faced off against the third-seeded College of Charleston. Drexel got an 11-point lead going into the half, and Charleston simply couldn’t keep up despite, outscoring the Dragons in the second half. Leading the Dragons in this one was graduate student Zach Walton, who finished with a team-high 17 points. Walton hit a remarkable five of his six attempts from beyond the arc.
In the semifinals, the Dragons then matched up against Northeastern University, looking to advance to the CAA finals for the first time since 2012. Once again, the Dragons were led by Walton, who finished with a team-high 15 points.
Walton was one of four Dragons to score in double figures, along with rising freshman Xavier Bell (11 points), senior James Butler (12 points) and junior Camren Wynter (14 points). Vernon Butler, father to James, attended Navy from 1982-86, where he ranks second all-time in points scored (1,952) behind only NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson. On Monday night, Butler saw his son James reach 1,000 points in his Drexel career, while also moving into ninth place on Drexel’s all-time rebounding list.
Late in the game, Sophomore Mate Okros showed his sharpshooting ability as he hit back three-pointers, giving the Dragons a six-point lead late in the second quarter. The Dragons wound up winning 74-67, setting them up for a CAA title game against Elon University.
A recurrence throughout this tournament has been the Dragons’ exceptional three-point shooting, and that did not stop in the finals. In the first half, the Dragons were scorching hot from beyond the arc, going 6-11, including a buzzer beater step-back three-pointer by Walton at the end of the first half that gave Drexel a 32-27 lead.
Drexel got most of their scoring production from two unsung heroes—Mate Okros and Xavier Bell—who, after this CAA tournament, are now key players for Drexel. Okros finished the game as Drexel’s leading scorer with 14 points, going 4-6 from the three-point line and 3-4 from deep in the first half. Bell, named 2020 Mr. Kansas basketball, has played an integral part in Drexel’s run to the big dance since taking a spot in the starting lineup four games ago. On Tuesday night, Bell finished with 11 points on 4-6 shooting.
As a team, Drexel shot an incredible 10-17 from the three-point line. Another strength for the Dragons was their rebounding, as they led Elon in that category 39-26. Senior Tim Perry Jr. played a big part in Drexel’s rebounding, as he grabbed nine boards and added 6 points in just 10 minutes of play. Imagine what kind of numbers Perry Jr. would have put up if he had played 25 minutes? Head Coach Zach Spiker may consider giving Perry Jr. more time in the tournament in the event that the Dragons go up against a taller team.
It’s been quite the journey for Spiker as he finishes up his fifth season with the team. Whether it was masterminding Drexel’s historic 34-point comeback against Delaware on Feb. 22, 2018, or getting the Dragons to their first tournament appearance in 25 years, it’s safe to say the Spiker era at Drexel has been positive. Understandably, Spiker was overwhelmed with emotions after the Dragon’s 63-56 victory over Elon to go to the big dance.
“You can’t always control what happens to you, but you can control the circumstances,” Spiker said to the Inquirer. “[The championship] validates what we tell our guys.”
Now that Drexel has made it to the tournament, the team and fans must wait until selection Sunday to hear who they will match up against in the round of 64. Let’s hope the torrid three-point shooting and rugged rebounding will carry on from the CAA playoffs.
Until then, Drexel can let this victory sink in, as it has been a very long time coming.