March 17, 2021
In mid-January, Drexel didn’t look like it was going anywhere. The Dragons were struggling. They had lost a pair of games to the College of Charleston, then dropped another to William & Mary, losing three in four games by a combined 11 points. Games the Dragons should have won — and they knew it.
At the time, Drexel was sitting at 6-5 overall and 1-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Dragons had scraped their nadir.
Was anyone on the Chestnut Street campus thinking of playing into late March then?
It’s when Drexel coach Zach Spiker brought to mind a meeting he had with his brilliant 6-foot-2 junior guard and leader, Camren Wynter. They met in September at a picnic table outside of Saxbys coffee shop on 34th Street, socially distanced and masked up. Spiker asked Wynter what he needs from him, the coach.
The conversation resonated to January.
“I had to ask myself what I could do better to get us wins,” Wynter recalled. “Coach Spiker stressed we have to be a player-led team and we kept our poise and we held each other accountable for everything. Once we did that, we meshed and came together. I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought what I can do better for us to win.”
The Dragons have gone 6-2 since, winning four straight and taking the CAA Tournament title for their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1996 — a good quarter of a century ago when no players on the current team were alive.
The task in front of the Dragons is a daunting one. Drexel (12-7) begins play on Friday at 1:15 p.m. (TBS) as the No. 16 seed in the Midwest Region, opening against Big Ten tournament champion and No. 1 seed Illinois (23-6) and its imposing 7-foot center and future NBA lottery pick Kofi Cockburn. It's why they're currently 22.5-point underdogs, according to Pa.Unibet.com. But Drexel isn't packing it in.
“We have more to do, we’re not done,” Wynter said. “We made history and even now we look at each other and say we broke the gap. We’re not just happy to be here. We know what’s ahead of us. We want to show the world how good of a basketball team we are. We’re absolutely not done.
“Call it Philly toughness. It’s the greatest feeling I ever had climbing that ladder and cutting down the net [after winning the CAA Tournament title]. It was just amazing. It’s what every kid who ever plays basketball dreams about doing—and we did it.
“I think the thing people don’t know about us is our poise. This team is resilient. That was tested [back in January] and we came through it. Coach believed in us, and we believed in each other. No one panicked. We followed the game plan and we locked in, and that carried on through the rest of the year.”
When the Dragons were 1-3 in the CAA, Spiker brought up the fact that they were one-possession games. Drexel was in a position to win. Spiker kept his approach consistent and felt the Dragons’ early losses provided teachable moments.
The other looming cloud was the COVID-19 pandemic. Drexel had to cancel 12 games this season, but that was because the opposing team had positive tests — not the Dragons.
“We had a lot of things come at us this year and it’s why I want us to be in the moment and it’s something we keep stressing,” Spiker said. “I like how we’re playing on the offensive end. We’re sharing the ball and have a good pace on offense. We’re defending and rebounding.
“We were hit with the pandemic when no one played, and everyone emerged from that better. [Sophomore 6-9 forward] T.J. Bickerstaff (the grandson of Bernie Bickerstaff) has emerged as a better player, freshman [6-3 guard] Xavier Bell has come on late, and [sophomore 6-6 forward] Mate Okros has made 12 of 17 threes in our last four games.
“How we’ve come together is what I envisioned. We still have work to do and we have to get better. It took some time to sink in what it meant to win the CAA. At the moment, I was thinking about so many other people and how excited I was for them.
“It took a few days, but it sank in later. To see the look on Cam’s face was incredible. It’s why we do it. I spoke to the guys about being disciplined and vigilant. We’re not done yet, and I want to keep looking ahead.”
The task is monumental, but not impossible. On Friday, Drexel will look to shock the basketball world and become just the second 16-seed to ever advance out of the first round of the tournament. Just three years ago, UMBC proved it could be done when they beat then No. 1 seed Virginia.
Could the Dragons become the second team to do it?
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Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has been writing for PhillyVoice since its inception in 2015 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.