Eighteen months and 10 days ago, the Drexel men’s basketball team had a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. It was an extremely realistic chance if you ask any of the college basketball analysts who wrote articles the next day about the Dragons being snubbed from going dancing.
Alas, the 2011-12 men’s basketball team never found that No. 14 seed that awaited them in the play-in rounds. They reached the National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals before falling to the University of Massachusetts Minutemen, a disappointing and arguably unjust ending to a 29-7 season that saw a 19-game win streak go unrewarded.
That season marked the end of Samme Givens’ storied career as a Dragon, but around Drexel’s campus the program was seeing a rebirth of hope that carried over to the “Revenge of the Dragon” campaign in 2012-13. The team was picked No. 1 in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll, then-junior point guard Frantz Massenat was named the preseason player of the year, and all signs pointed to a successful re-up bid at the tournament.
But the Dragons saw their attempt at spiteful vindication go up in flames. They finished 13-18, the second-worst season in James “Bruiser” Flint’s tenure as Drexel’s head coach.
“It definitely was a step backwards; that goes without saying,” Flint said. “Everybody knows that. We have to tighten up because last year we didn’t prepare ourselves well and we didn’t get ready.”
On one hand, the campaign was a failure. There was campuswide disappointment as the yellow-clad DAC Pack members had their egos checked at the door. The raucous fervor that had engulfed the student body less than a year before had been halved.
The enthusiasm behind the men’s basketball team took a massive hit.
However, while it is easy to call last season a step backward, it is can also be seen as a source of lessons and motivation for Flint and his players.
“We’ve got to come to play,” Flint said. “Guys have to be ready. I think we’ve prepared a little bit better than we did the year before, but we have to do better come fall. I thought we had a good summer. I know our guys worked hard in the summer — I thought we challenged ourselves a lot, and the coaches challenged the players — and so now we have to show it in the fall.”
The Dragons were handed a slice of humble pie last season without actually losing integral players, an unbelievably lucky occurrence in collegiate athletics. Typically, the thrifty four-year window of eligibility limits team building between a consistent crew. Between graduation and draft chasing, a redo is almost unheard of. But this year, the Dragons will essentially have just that.
The aforementioned Massenat, junior guard Damion Lee, and sixth-year guard Chris Fouch, the three pillars of what will likely be the most potent guard-oriented offense in the CAA this season, are all returning for this chance at redemption. Their ability to play together for three straight years despite Fouch being three years ahead of Lee is a rare thing.
Fouch’s story is the most remarkable part of the Dragons’ chances this year. In his fifth year of school and final season of NCAA eligibility, Fouch broke his ankle in the third game of the 2012-13 season against the rival University of Pennsylvania.
His injury played a big role in the nightmarish outcome of last year, and the Dragon faithful feared that they watched the guard’s last chance at the NCAA Tournament go down in a heap at the Palestra.
But this past spring the NCAA granted him an additional year of eligibility due to the short amount of time he played last year, reuniting the three-headed guard attack for the upcoming season.
Along with returning forwards Kazembe Abif and Dartaye Ruffin, who are more than serviceable players, the team has a chance to take the step that the student body was waiting for last season.
A hot start to the season would pack the DAC; a hot season would pack it for the next five years. Here at Drexel, the student body lacks a college football team — when you look past our improvisational comedy group, that is — which is a common rallying point for most college students, whether they’re rabid sports fans or not.
It isn’t necessarily about the actual game being played or the statistics being recorded and plays being called. Rather, it’s about celebrating together as a singular student body. The unified heart of a university beats with its most publicized sports team, a title the Drexel men’s basketball team could hold aloft if it lives up to expectations this season.
This was proven in the 2011-12 season mentioned earlier. During the red-hot streak of beautiful basketball, the DAC was packed every time the Dragons played a home game, leading University of North Carolina Wilmington head coach Buzz Peterson to call it a scary place to play. The DAC Pack made the top 10 in a national search for the best college basketball student section in America. The belief was contagious, and the players believed, too.
There was a mutual respect and belief in each other; if the Dragons showed up on the court, the fans would show up in the stands. After the team won the regular-season title, Givens and a number of other Dragons celebrated in the stands with the DAC Pack. That iconic Drexel basketball photo was seen as signaling a new age for the men’s basketball program.
“The home-court advantage is huge for any team, including us,” Flint said. “People don’t like to play here because they feel uncomfortable with the students real tight to them.
“A lot of people made a lot of comments to me, like, ‘Hey man, your place always looks exciting,’ and a lot of that has to do with the DAC Pack. They do a great job bringing excitement to it.”
This year, with the help of the student body, the team can take the torch and act as if last year was just a building block. The talent is present, and when the talent is present, belief is never far behind.
In the end, all it takes is execution.