Through the first 8 games of Drexel's new men's basketball era with Zach Spiker in charge, the Dragons are off to a 4-4 start. This may come as a surprise, as the team’s fourth victory last season came in late February.
Moving on from last year's 6-win season was not an easy task, especially after losing five players. But Spiker's system has worked.
Playing at a faster pace has led to more high percentage shots and steals. As a result, Spiker's group has been able to attempt more shots, helping them average 75.6 points per game this season.
Not only is Drexel scoring more but they are forcing opponents into lackluster mistakes due to their intense style of play. So far the Dragons have stolen the ball 55 times, contrary to last year's squad which only had 34 steals at this point of the season. A lot of the team’s early season success can be attributed to freshman standout Kurk Lee, who is the epitome of speed and leads the team with 15 steals.
Lee has flourished in this system from the start. After his collegiate debut where he led the team in scoring with 17 points, the Baltimore native scored a career-high 24 points against Hartford in Drexel's home opener. He followed that up by dropping 21 points against city rival La Salle and putting in an all-around performance against High Point with 16 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists, and 2 steals in 35 minutes of play.
The 5-foot-10 guard’s ability to impact the game by attacking the basket, nailing mid range jumpers, sticking tight defense, and distributing the ball to open teammates is essential for this team to be successful. Not to mention, his speed fits in perfectly with how coach Spiker wants this team to play. Lee plays relentlessly every time he’s out on the floor and works his tail off on both ends of the court.
Coach Spiker’s philosophy has also benefitted senior Rodney Williams. The big man went three-straight games with at least 20 points after Drexel’s season opening loss against Monmouth, where he just missed out on a double-double with 9 points and 10 boards. His contribution on the defensive end should not go unnoticed as Rodney Williams is tied with forward Austin Williams for most team blocks at 11. He also has shown the ability to cover perimeter players, showing his versatility to play defense inside and out.
Even more, Rodney Williams is Drexel's team-captain. On a night where Drexel was outrebounded by 27 and overmatched in the paint against Rutgers, the St. Christopher's School alum continued to grind on both ends of the court, modeling for his teammates what it means to be all in. He showed true leadership by not giving up and exemplified all the traits of a team-captain.
In Lee and Rodney Williams, Spiker found out early who he could rely on to lead his team moving forward. Lee showed the former Army coach that he could be a dynamic ball handler, who could make plays for teammates, while Rodney Williams displayed his offensive/defensive prowess and leadership skills.
As good as Drexel's leading duo of Lee and Rodney Williams have been, freshman guard Kari Jonsson has stepped up to become the team's most potent three-point threat.
Jonsson is shooting 48% from three and has hit a team-high 22 threes. The Iceland native drained 5 three-pointers when the Dragons defeated North Texas in their first appearance in the Lone Star State since the 1987-88 season and nailed a career-high 7 threes against High Point. Jonsson has taken advantage of additional playing time as his lethal shooting performance versus the Panthers came in a career-high 35 minutes of action.
Though Drexel has been playing at a high tempo, scoring more baskets and picking others teams’ pockets, the Dragons have struggled to consistently defend shots from beyond the arc and limit their own turnovers. Opposing teams are shooting 43% from the three, which gives Drexel the 348th ranking in the nation according to Sports-Reference.com.
The Dragons allowed a below .500 Niagara squad to shoot 83% (10-12 3PM-A) from three as sophomore forward Marvin Prochet and freshman guard James Towns combined for 8 threes to help the Purple Eagles win. Four days later, La Salle came into the Daskalakis Athletic Center and shot almost 62% (13-21 3PM-A) from three as senior swingman Cleon Roberts went 6-7 from deep.
Turnovers have also been a problem for Drexel. They have committed 13 or more turnovers in 7 out of their 8 games. Though High Point forced the Dragons into a season-high 21 turnovers last weekend, Drexel came away with the win but that contest was an outlier. Monmouth and La Salle stole the ball away from Drexel 16 and 17 times, respectively, and both teams won by double-digits.
If Drexel wants to remain competitive throughout non-conference play and into CAA play, they have to close out on three-point shooters quicker and limit their turnovers. They cannot expect to continue to win close games giving up almost 9 three-pointers and 15 turnovers per game. They have gotten away with it thus far but as the season progresses they may not be so fortunate.
All in all, through 8 games the team has exceed expectations. Coach Spiker has began to implement his system, found the players to lead his team, and has Drexel at a .500 winning percentage. After a disappointing 2015-16 season, Spiker has reenergized the Dragons, who are currently on a 2-game winning streak. There is still a lot for the Dragons to improve on but they are better off now than they were a year ago.
Photo: Benjamin Simon/ Philly Empire
-Drexel loses to Charleston in the quarterfinal of the CAA tournament