The Drexel Dragons are making a case for themselves as the unofficial kings of Philly despite not being a member of the Brotherly Love's Fantastic Five.
Want some evidence? When George Mason visited last week during the semester break, the Daskalakis Athletic Complex was sold out, with officials turning people away at the doors.
"Philly is a college town," Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said. "If they think you are pretty good, they'll come watch you play."
In fact, Flint left tickets for two friends, and they were turned away.
"I told them they need to get here early now," Flint said.
The reason for Dragon-mania? How about consecutive pre-conference wins at Villanova, Syracuse and Temple? There was also an earlier win at St. Joseph's, giving Drexel a 3-1 record against Philly's Big 5 this year. That would be Villanova's record as well, if the Wildcats had to count their loss to Drexel.
"Some [Philadelphia hoops fans] think [our fast start] is luck," Flint said. "What I always tell them is, we didn't beat them on Drexel's campus. We beat those teams on their home courts. We didn't ambush people at the DAC [Drexel Athletic Center] because we have a good team. We went to those places, so that proves we are pretty good and we should get that type of credit."
The turning point for the Dragons came after an 89-81 overtime loss to Rider, six days after a 19-point loss to Penn.
"After the game, we sat in the locker room for an hour," said senior point guard Bashir Mason. "We just got the jitters out. There was some talk around Philadelphia that we were supposed to be really good and we were losing some games. Coach just told us, just go out and play basketball. Don't give in to the pressure. Since we left Rider, we're playing how we are supposed to play."
Against Georgia State on Wednesday in Atlanta, Drexel moved to 2-0 in the Colonial Athletic Association, but it wasn't easy. The Dragons were forced to play most of the game without athletic big man Frank Elegar, who had been the hero in the Syracuse and Villanova wins. With Elegar saddled with foul trouble, senior Chaz Crawford responded with 17 points and 13 rebounds as Drexel clawed to a 61-55 win over Georgia State.
"We got lucky today because we didn't play particularly well and won," Flint said afterward. "But I guess they say, good teams are able to do that."
Flint says this year's success was born during last year's preseason NIT run, when the Dragons played Duke and UCLA in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden. While Drexel lost both games, Flint knew his team could match up athletically with the big boys.
"We didn't always play well or shoot the ball well, but athletically we stayed in games," Flint said of his team which finished 15-16. "I knew if we could get a little bit better and improve our shooting, then we could be at this point."
Where they are, remarkably, is in the top 10 in the RPI at 10-2, and possibly headed for an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. The CAA received two bids last year for the first time since 1986, when Richmond and David Robinson's Navy squad were invited. Hofstra, George Mason, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth will be among the chief competition for the league and tournament crowns, but the veteran Dragons are as good a choice as any. After struggling from the floor last season, Drexel has improved its shooting percentage to 44 percent, which, when combined with its athleticism and commitment to defense, makes Drexel a tough out each night.
But don't think the Dragons are going to start making postseason plans.
"We're never going to get caught up in the talk with Bruiser on the sideline," Mason said.
Flint is an emotional leader on the sideline, and he has instilled a confidence in his team this year that they can play with anyone.
"We expected this type of start," Elegar said. "Last year, we were just inexperienced. This year, we are able to play in those close games. We were in New York last year, so we know what it is like to play against those big schools."
The main cog for Drexel is Elegar. Coming out of St. Raymond's in the Bronx where he wasn't a double-digit scorer as a senior, Elegar did little as a freshman. Last season, he averaged 11.1 points as a sophomore and became a valuable member of the frontcourt.
"Last year, he had a good year, but he was on house money," Flint said. "He had never really played before, even in high school. Now, he comes back and eyes are on him, and he didn't handle it well at the beginning of the season. But we had a little talk and he's been fine ever since."
Elegar has been CAA Player of the Week twice and is averaging 15.0 points and 7.5 rebounds. He gets help up front from Crawford and Kenny Tribbett. Mason runs the squad from the point, and off guard Dominick Mejia is a scorer still waiting to break out in his senior season.
"Guys have been stepping up all year," Flint said. "It all starts with our defense. We are a pretty good defensive team. As long as we do that, we have a shot every night."
Since the Missouri Valley is clearly the class of the mid-majors, we'll begin our weekly update on the conference that will send multiple teams to the NCAA tournament.
Missouri State avoided a 1-2 start in Missouri Valley Conference play with 86-78 win at Bradley. Blake Ahearn scored in double figures for the 12th time this season in the win... Southern Illinois moved to 3-0 in conference play with a come-from-behind win at Drake on Thursday. Matt Shaw broke a tie with 22 seconds left with a three-point play to give the Salukis their 15th straight win over Drake. The Bulldogs are looking for their first winning season since 1987, but have started MVC play at 0-3... Indiana State continues to try to get in the mix and picked up a quality win over Creighton on Thursday. The Sycamores are 2-1 in the league and have won four straight... Wichita State snapped a four-game losing streak with a convincing win over Bradley on Thursday, led by Karon Bradley's 21 points.
Army has come back to earth after a 9-2 start, losing three of its last four. The Black Knights fell at Dartmouth this week 66-58, and only a last-second three-pointer by Jarell Brown in a 59-58 win over Sacred Heart prevented a four-game losing streak... Marist guard Jared Jordan, profiled in an earlier Mid-Major Report, recorded the first triple-double of his career with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a 77-69 loss at Loyola. Jordan, last season's assist champ, is averaging 8.2 assists, tops in the nation... William & Mary ended George Mason's 14-game CAA home winning streak Wednesday with a 67-63 win. It was the first win for the Tribe at George Mason in eight years and dropped last year's Final Four darlings to 0-2 in conference play... Iona remained the nation's lone winless team with an 88-57 loss at Maryland. The Gaels, who made the NCAA tournament last season, will try for win No. 1 at Loyola (Md.) on Saturday.
The Mailbag was light over New Year's, but still got some feedback from last week's feature on Jackson State's Trey Johnson.
Since you like stats so much (Trey Johnson is scoring 45 percent of his team's points), I'll use stats to show why I'll take Morris [Almond] from Rice over Trey:
46.3 percent to 36.6 percent from three-point range in favor of Morris. 53.9 percent to 41.9 percent overall, again Morris. 23.8 shots per game for Trey to only 17.8 for Morris. Well yeah, if guys take most of the shots, of course they'll score most of the points. But I'll take the 1.69 pps over the 1.25 pps all day and twice on Sundays. Is it that Trey is that good, or that his team is that bad and he needs to do all the shooting, or is he just selfish? I don't know, I have not seen Jackson State play, he may be doing exactly what the coach asks. But if you're going to use stats, be careful. As my statistics professor said when it came to stats, "What is the answer ... what do you want it to be?" You can use them to support Trey, I can use them against him. In the end, they're utterly meaningless.
With all that said, I'll try to see if they're ever on TV so I can try to check him out, he may be as good as you say, just that your stat support was useless. -- Craig Schulte, Cincinnati
Craig, thanks for the feedback. I never said Johnson is better than Almond. My point was Johnson is forced to carry a bigger offensive burden due to his supporting cast, and he has to do it on the road every game. I would have to ask an NBA scout who the better prospect is, and it may very well be Almond. I was just profiling an interesting mid-major player. With that said, I saw Almond go for 44 points against Vanderbilt this week, and he is a dominant player. His ability to get to the line will allow him to consistently score.