A typical roller coaster starts and ends in the same station. The cars pull out, climb hills, endure fear-inducing drops, but come to rest at the same station where they began. It struck me as I watched the game clock tick toward the end of the regular season March 2 that this also applies to the Drexel men’s basketball team. Their conference play began in the station with a record of 0-0. It began with a frightening drop, a 1-3 start, before climbing a tall, towering hill to rest at 4-4 at the end of January. They then ran the gauntlet of uphills and drops until they defeated the University of North Carolina Wilmington, finalizing their conference record at 9-9. The same number of wins and losses, just like when they pulled out of the station.
The difference is that when the Dragons first hopped on this roller coaster, they were coming off a disconcerting loss to Saint Joseph’s University in which they couldn’t even muster 50 points. As they leave the ride, they have a dominating 62-46 victory over the Seahawks from UNCW in their minds. It’s confidence as they head for the next ride, the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament, and after Saturday’s display, it’s well-deserved confidence.
The Seahawks weren’t exactly the staunchest of competition, but they did come into the game wielding one of the most dangerous weapons in the CAA in Keith Rendleman. He showed up in a big way in the game, scoring more than half of his team’s points (24 of their 46) on just 17 attempts from the field. He also managed to snag 10 rebounds, and when Rendleman double-doubles, UNCW’s chances of winning are exponentially better.
Yet it was hardly a contest, something that made little statistical sense until you look at the box score and realize that while they didn’t shut Rendleman down, the Dragons’ big men were able to counteract his production.
Daryl McCoy, playing in his last regular-season game as a Dragon on Senior Night, racked up 13 points and a game-high 17 rebounds in what was easily his most masterful performance of the year. And, not to pale in comparison, Dartaye Ruffin added eight points and 14 rebounds to bring their combined totals to 21 points and 31 rebounds.
That’s how they bested Rendleman without slowing him down whatsoever. That, and the fact that the Drexel defense held every Seahawk not named Keith Rendleman to 21.6 percent shooting from the field. It was a classic demonstration of head coach James “Bruiser” Flint’s trademark shutdown defense, and it’s exactly what the Dragons will need to replicate this weekend if they want a chance to go far in the CAA Tournament.
The first-round matchup in Richmond, Va., pits the Dragons against the Patriots of George Mason University. The Patriots were an early favorite to go far in the CAA, but their conference play saw a number of stumbles, and they were relegated to the fourth seed in the tournament, tasked with facing the fifth-seeded Dragons.
George Mason is heading into this matchup having lost two straight close games to elite CAA competition in the University of Delaware and Towson University. Still, two losses are two losses, and low confidence is never good heading into a tournament.
Both times these two met this season were fantastic competitions. When both final scores are combined, George Mason wins by two, 122-120. It almost goes without saying that these are two evenly matched teams.
This game will probably be decided by which Damion Lee shows up: the show-stopping Lee who won the first matchup for Drexel? Or pedestrian Lee, who stood by as the Dragons fell in Game 2?
Either way, this is easily the premier matchup of the first round. If the Dragons manage to pull off the technical upset on Saturday, they’ll be matched up in the second round with Northeastern University. The Huskies received a first-round bye with their CAA regular-season title. The Huskies have proven to be more of a challenge for the Dragons this year, beating them both times they met. In the first matchup, Northeastern’s Quincy Ford forced overtime as time expired and then watched the Huskies finish it off in the extra period.
At this point, the Dragons’ chances of ending up at the top of the CAA Tournament are slim at best. They will likely face three of the four top seeds on their hypothetical road to the championship. Yet, as they enter the tournament, every team is 0-0. Regular-season records are null and void, and the only stats that matter are the ones residing in the box scores at the end of the night.
Although the Dragons ended the regular season four games under .500, they still have a shot at the NCAA Tournament. That’s the beauty of college basketball.