Try as they might, the Drexel men’s basketball team can’t seem to get a break on the hardwood these days, and even when they do, stringing two breaks together is equally elusive.
After notching a solid win Nov. 25 against Rice University to end their stint at the DirecTV Classic, the Dragons came home hoping to try and rack up their first back-to-back wins of the season. Instead, two games later, they find themselves with a 2-6 record, staring up at the Colonial Athletic Association.
Their week began Dec. 1 with an afternoon matinee against the Rider University Broncs of the Metro Atlantic Association Conference. Rider entered the game with a record of 4-4, and through the first 35 minutes, the Broncs were nothing but a mirror of their record: average.
Aside from forward Daniel Stewart’s extremely efficient second half, in which he scored 15 of his 21 points, Rider didn’t do much to steal the game from the Dragons, and yet Drexel never took proper advantage of the sleepy start from the Broncs.
Every time the men found a way to extend their lead to more than a few points, be it through consecutive Derrick Thomas three-pointers or stalwart defense from Dartaye Ruffin and Daryl McCoy, the Dragons always found a way to let Rider back into the game.
And once the Broncs awakened, Drexel had allowed them to hang around too long. With four minutes remaining in the game, the score was tied at 60-60. Just four game minutes later, Rider had scored 20 percent of its entire point production in just 10 percent of the duration of the game. After being unable to put the Broncs away, Drexel’s defense faltered in the clutch, and they dropped the contest 75-66.
Sophomore guard Damion Lee scored a career-high 28 points, albeit on 21 field goal attempts, but his effort wasn’t enough to keep the Dragons in the game.
The main culprit of the Dragons’ inability to grab the game by the reins was their frustration with Rider’s press defense. The Dragons were called for two ten-second violations — taking too long to get the ball to the frontcourt — as well as two backcourt violations.
It is certainly understandable for a team to be confounded by a surprise stint of press defense once in a game, but when it is a constant pressure, the team should identify it and be able to break the press. It’s a fundamental part of any offense that plans to be successful at a competitive NCAA level, yet the Dragons struggled with it.
The struggles continued when the Dragons traveled to Tennessee to take on the Tennessee State University Tigers Dec. 4. The Tigers came into the game with just one more win than the Dragons (three versus two) and the same number of losses (five).
Drexel got off to an uncharacteristically slow start, and Tennessee State took advantage with a hot start of its own. After the first half, the Tigers had a 36-30 advantage on 52 percent shooting from the field, including making three of five three-point attempts.
One of the few strong points in the Dragons’ game this year has been their rebounding with the powerhouse combination of Ruffin and McCoy under the hoop, and they once again flexed their rebounding muscles in the first half against the Tigers.
Yet despite pulling down 11 offensive rebounds in the first half, Drexel only converted them into eight second-chance points. If they want to improve their game, capitalizing on second-chance opportunities needs to be a key part of their focus going forward. Offensive rebounding is a strength for the Dragons, and it’s one that no team can afford to take for granted.
But Drexel wasn’t able to pounce on the opportunities, and it changed the game. While the Dragons closed the gap early in the second half and even held a slim lead for 10 minutes in the final 20, the Dragons found the game in a situation that was eerily similar to what they faced against Rider just three days earlier. With just over four minutes to go, Tennessee State tied the game at 57.
And, in similar fashion, the Dragons’ defense once again let them down. The Tigers scored seven points in just 64 seconds, taking a seven-point lead almost instantaneously, and never looked back, extending it to their 10-point margin of victory by the time the buzzer sounded.
Saying that Drexel’s season has been underwhelming to this point would be an understatement, and head coach James “Bruiser” Flint is becoming frustrated.
“They played tougher than we did,” Flint said after the Tennessee State loss. “That’s the way we’ve been playing, and that’s why we’ve been losing. We’ve got to play tougher.”
Flint didn’t specify what facets of the game the Dragons need to focus on other than perseverance, but he made it clear that he expects more from this team.
“We’re struggling, that’s for sure,” Flint said. “Guys have to just keep working at it.”
The Dragons will have their next chance to keep working at it Dec. 8, when the team travels to Princeton University to take on the 3-4 Tigers of the Ivy League. Princeton is coming off a 62-50 win over the same Kent State University team that defeated Drexel in the first game of the season. While victories over teams typically don’t hold true to the transitive property, there’s no question that the Princeton contest will be tightly contested and extremely important for the Dragons.
Princeton’s highest scorer on the season, senior forward Ian Hummer, is averaging 14.4 points, six rebounds and 4.9 assists per game so far this year. But he has a serious size disadvantage against Drexel’s premier forward combination in McCoy and Ruffin.
If Drexel can perform defensively against the 323rd scoring offense in the country — not an exceptionally difficult task — and manage to snag a win on the road, this could be a momentum builder for the Dragons. But if they fall, it may be time to start talking in terms of reality: this is not the team we all thought they were.