Tue Oct 18 12:59pm EDT
For Drexel to live up to its preseason billing as the Colonial Athletic Association's best team, coach Bruiser Flint knows the Dragons must accomplish something they've been unable to do during his 11-year tenure.
Those three schools have captured at least a share of the regular season CAA title each of the past eight seasons and have combined to win seven of the past eight conference tournaments as well. By contrast, Drexel has yet to make the NCAA tournament under Flint despite finishing in the upper half of the league standings all but two of his 10 seasons running the program.
"We talk about it as a program getting past the big three," Flint said Tuesday. "Those are the ones you have to get past in order to carve your niche in this league, and we're hoping we can finally do it."
With George Mason breaking in a new coach and a new backcourt, Old Dominion replacing its starting frontcourt and VCU seeking role players to blossom around Bradford Burgess, this season could represent Drexel's best chance. The Dragons return four starters from last year's 21-win team and check in first in the CAA preseason poll released Tuesday, ahead of the familiar triumvirate of second-place George Mason, third-place VCU and fourth-place Old Dominion.
Drexel has traditionally excelled in defense and rebounding, so Flint has emphasized more efficient offense this offseason. He has demanded the team work to improve its abysmal 61.6 percent free throw shooting. He has encouraged sophomore point guard Frantz Massenat to spend time honing his wayward three-point shot rather than being strictly a threat off the dribble. And he landed freshman sharp shooters Damion Lee and Tavon Allen to help improve the Dragons' anemic 31 percent three-point shooting.
More prolific offense may be a challenge in the preseason because Drexel will be without leading scorer Chris Fouch as he recovers from offseason knee surgery. Fellow high-scoring wing Samme Givens will help pick up the slack for Fouch, who Flint says should be back in time for league play if not sooner.
"We're taking it slow because this is his third operation on the knee," Flint said. "The doctors just want to be careful this time. They were like, 'Look, we don't want to rush him back.' Last year, after having knee surgery, he started to run out of steam and the knee started to hurt him toward the end of the year. They think if we take the necessary time to get him back fully, we won't have that this year."
It's vital for Drexel that Fouch is fully healthy by league play because the Dragons' NCAA tournament hopes likely will depend on how they fare against CAA competition.
As a result of Drexel's history of upsetting BCS-conference opponents and the expectations that this year's team should be especially strong, Flint had a difficult time finding marquee non-league opponents willing to even agree to a guarantee game. Therefore Drexel's lone games against high-major opponents will come in the Paradise Jam tournament featuring Virginia and Mississippi.
Can the Dragons still contend for an at-large berth even with their suspect schedule? Flint says George Mason's 2010-11 team suggests they can. The Patriots' best non-league win last year came over Harvard, yet they sailed to a 16-2 conference finish and earned a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament despite losing in the CAA title game to VCU.
"People are a little hesitant about putting you on the schedule because we've been able to pull a few upsets," Flint said. "Guys now, they look at your roster and see what you have returning. Our league is notorious for beating some pretty good teams. They say, 'Well, they're going to be good in the CAA, so they have a chance to beat us.'"