Saturday afternoon’s contest between Drexel and College of Charleston features two teams looking to make a move up the Colonial Athletic Association standings. Both the host Dragons and Cougars have struggled for consistency this season but will play each other for the first of two scheduled contests.
Drexel (4-14, 2-5) will be led by high-scoring and productive guard Damion Lee. The 6-foot-6 junior rarely leaves the floor and is averaging 20.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game for the Dragons. College of Charleston (6-14, 1-6) relies on more of a balanced approach to get it done and the Cougars are led by sophomore guards Canyon Barry and Joe Chealey.
Drexel, a team picked in the preseason to finish second in the Colonial Athletic Association, had pounced on the No. 4 ranked team in the nation, looking to make an early-season statement inside the World Most’s Famous Arena on the eve of Thanksgiving.
Arizona rallied from a 19-point, first-half deficit to defeat Drexel, 66-62, to advance to the championship game of NIT Season Tip-Off.
The Dragons lost more than just a heartbreaking contest to a team that later went on to be one-win shy of the Final Four. They also lost star swingman Damion Lee to a torn ACL, which required season-ending surgery. The 6-foot-7 Lee was a preseason first-team pick after a sophomore campaign where he finished third in the CAA in scoring at 17.1 points per game.
“He was probably one of the four or five top players in the league,” Drexel head coach Bruiser Flint told NBCSports.com last month. “It really hurts you. It took away one of the weapons we had. The thing is, you played games with him and then you have to adjust without him right away.”
Drexel, led by the high-scoring duo of Chris Fouch and Frantz Massenat, got through the next four games, two of which came in triple overtime. However, the Dragons broke even in conference play (8-8), going 1-5 against the three teams to finish ahead of them — Delaware, Towson and Williams & Mary.
It’s been 11 months since the injury occurred, but Lee has been back on the floor this fall without limitations. The redshirt junior wing will be the key to a successful campaign for Drexel in a league filled with uncertainty.
“When I was looking at some of the rosters after the season was over, I noticed that the league is wide-opened,” Lee told NBCSports.com. “Northeastern brings back all of its roster. William & Mary have two really good players and Hofstra will be better. But I still think the league is wide-open. There is no clear-cut favorite.”
In order those three teams — Northeastern, William & Mary and Hofstra — were slotted ahead of Drexel in the CAA preseason coaches poll, and despite a shift in order was, were the top three in the predicted finish in College Basketball Talk‘s CAA preview.
William & Mary is fueled by last season’s near-miss in the conference title game, and brings back Marcus Thornton, the only returning first-team all-CAA pick from a season ago. Northeastern has a healthy Quincy Ford in addition to the majority of last season’s rotation and Hofstra is depending on several transfers to make an immediate impact on a program that has only won 27 games over the last three seasons.
Drexel enters the season without Fouch and Massenat. However, there teams in a similar position as Drexel, such as reigning CAA champion Delaware losing four double-digit scorers and Towson, which graduated two-time CAA Player of the Year Jerrelle Tenimon along with the team’s three other top scorers. Regardless of the roster changes, each team possesses the tools necessary to be a surprise team in the CAA, and with a healthy Lee, surrounded by a developing set of underclassmen, it could be the Dragons.
“I know that we’re going to be looked over because teams will think we lost six players from the previous year that we won’t be that good,” Lee added. “From my standpoint, I just want to lead this team to any wins that we can get. I’m pretty confident that we’ll be a sleeper this year and we’ll sneak up on some teams.”
In August, just before Drexel’s trip to China, an update on Lee’s recovery mentioned that he was still not scrimmaging. While it appeared as an ominous sign, it was merely a precautionary measure.
“The doctor said there was no need to chance it,” Flint said. “He practiced a lot, though.”
Lee made the trip to China with the team, and while on the bench was able to observe his teammates, both returnees and newcomers, in what turned out to be a promising trip for the new-look Dragons.
Eleven different players on the Drexel roster started at least one game during the 2013-2014 season. Of those players, junior Tavon Allen and sophomore Rodney Williams, a CAA all-Rookie Team selection, made the most starts. Those two will take on bigger roles this season, as will fellow sophomore big man Mohamed Bah. Sammy Mojica and Rashann London, two freshmen to the perimeter showed upside in China while first-year forwards Tyshawn Miles and Austin Williams provide athleticism and depth to the frontline.
“Our freshmen were thrown right into the fire [last season],” Flint said. “We lost two starters during the season and still had a winning record. I think people forget that. If those guys can do what I think they can do then I think we’re going to be fine.
“I think everyone in the league thinks they have a chance. They’re are a lot of question marks even with the better teams. I think a lot of teams are saying, ‘Hey if we put it all together, we could make a run in this conference.’”
Like many teams in the CAA, that will be the question, but Drexel has the luxury of having an all-CAA caliber player to help find that answer.
The Colonial Athletic Association ended in dramatic fashion last season as Delaware defeated William & Mary, 75-74, in the final seconds of the conference title game in Baltimore. There will be plenty of turnover in the CAA heading into this season, as many star players have moved on from their collegiate careers and several programs from the bottom half of the conference standings in previous years look to make the jump into the NCAA tournament conversation.
William & Mary guard Marcus Thornton is the only returning first-team all-conference selection and is the league’s best player. The Tribe also return Omar Prewitt, the CAA 2013-2014 Rookie of the Year, giving W&M one of the best perimeters in the conference. Chasing the Tribe will be two teams that finished below .500, but have the tools to be serious contenders this season. Northeastern returns six of its top seven scorers, including second-teamer Scott Eatherton and Quincy Ford, who was sidelined all but two games with a back injury. The two 6-foot-8 forwards give the Huskies the CAA’s best frontline. Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich is equipped with some offensive firepower to account for the graduation of CAA top scorer Zeke Upshaw. Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley, both of whom followed Mihalich from Niagara in 2013, are now eligible, as is SMU transfer Brian Bernardi. That trio joins senior guard Dion Nesmith.
Drexel, Delaware, James Madison and Towson have all lost significant contributions, but could still pieces to offset the lost production. Damion Lee has recovered from last December’s ACL tear. He averaged 17.1 points per game for Drexel as a sophomore in 2012-2013. Gone from Delaware are four double-digit scorers, but Kyle Anderson remains, as the Blue Hens will shift to a strong defensive-minded team in 2013-2014. Two-time player of the year Jerrelle Benimon graduated last spring, but Towson does bring back Timajh Parker-Rivera and Four McGlynn while James Madisonwon’t have its full roster until late November.
The Dukes suspended talented scorer Andre Nation for the first five games. He missed 15 games last season due to violation of the athletic department. Northeastern has also dealt with personnel issues as starting guard Demetrius Pollard left the program earlier this month, although he remains enrolled at the university.
The CAA welcomes Elon from the Southern Conference. Elon’s Matt Matheny is one of three new CAA head coaches. Rick Pitino’s former assistant Kevin Keatts takes over at UNC-Wilmington while former Clemson assistant Earl Grant got a late start to his first season on the College of Charleston bench after the school fired Doug Wojick in early August.
In: Elon Out: None
PRESEASON CAA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Marcus Thornton, William & Mary
The 6-foot-4 two-guard is the conference’s top returning scorer, averaging 18.7 points per game, going for 20 or more 14 times during his junior campaign that ended with first-team all-CAA honors. Thornton back-rimmed what would have been a game-winning, buzzer-beater in the CAA championship game against Delaware; a missed shot that likely fueled his offseason workouts this summer.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON CAA TEAM:
Kyle Anderson, Delaware: The Blue Hens lost four of five double-digit scorers. Anderson, the only one to start all 35 games, should see an increase in production this season for the reigning CAA champion.
Scott Eatherton, Northeastern: The 6-foot-8 forward averaged a double-double last season, posting 15.9 points and 10.2 boards per game.
Juan’ya Green, Hofstra: One of three transfers eligible this season for a revamped roster. The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 16.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists a game for Niagara in 2012-2013.
Damion Lee, Drexel: Missed all but five games last year due to an ACL tear. When Lee is healthy, Drexel is a contender and he is a player of the year candidate.