Saturday, December 27, 2014

Iona/Drexel Preview

Damion Lee leads Drexel into battle with Iona Sunday in Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of Mark Jordan via City of Basketball Love)

Iona's next-to-last nonconference game before MAAC play resumes is a deceptively strong tilt, as the Gaels head down to Philadelphia to face Bruiser Flint and the Drexel Dragons Sunday afternoon from the Daskalakis Athletic Center.

Following back-to-back losses against Arkansas and Monmouth, Tim Cluess' Gaels have rebounded to win three of their last four, the most recent of which being a convincing 86-67 victory over Florida Gulf Coast at the Hynes Center this past Tuesday, one in which Iona really never let the inhabitants of "Dunk City" get out of the box. Led by four double-figure scorers that include first team all-MAAC honorees A.J. English and preseason conference Player of the Year David Laury, the Gael offense, which averages 86 points per game, is a tall order for anyone, let alone two teams in three days, as evidenced by Iona's final non-league tuneup on Tuesday against Massachusetts.

Awaiting the Gaels is a 2-8 Drexel team that has had a rough go of things through the first two months of the season, most notably a 54-52 loss to Division II University of the Sciences on December 4. Regardless, Damion Lee has rebounded well from a torn ACL that sacrificed most of his season last year, averaging nearly 20 points per game for a Dragons squad already down two men in Major Canady and Kazembe Abif, both of whom are injured in what has seemingly been a continued stretch of misfortune when it comes to head coach James "Bruiser" Flint being able to keep his team healthy for a full season. Regardless, junior swingman Tavon Allen and burgeoning sophomore forward Rodney Williams, the latter of whom is a double-double threat on any given night, have managed to keep Drexel in most games this season to ensure that the lackluster start is, in some regards, an aberration.

Nonetheless, to help set the table for Sunday afternoon, Dan Crain, who covers Drexel for Dragons Speak, was gracious enough to join us for our pregame preview, wherein Dan enables us to get to know the Dragons a little better. (Side bar for friends of the site Jerry Beach, Gary Moore and Mike Brodsky: Dan didn't exactly reveal how much he had to Google in preparation for this one)

Jaden Daly: Drexel looks a lot younger than they've been in recent years, or at least that's how it seems up here. Does that help in explaining the Dragons' 2-8 start? On that note, are Chris Fouch and Frantz Massenat seriously no longer around? It really felt like they were there forever. Who has taken on their role as the team leader(s) and voice(s) of experience?

Dan Crain: Drexel had 6 guys out there for Senior night last year, so this team is much younger, and with the coaches spending their days trying to find ways to keep the two oldest guys - Freddie Wilson and Sooren Derboghosian - off of the court, it's even younger. That said, both junior captains, Lee and Allen, have redshirted, so there are two very vocal guys who are in their fourth year leading the team. The dilemma then is that Allen took a knock in the preseason and has been absolutely awful thus far this year.

JD: How is Bruiser Flint able to withstand what is basically a season-ending injury every year at this program? It feels like he never gets enough credit for the job he's done.

DC: I can go off on Bru for a few days, but the short answer is no. He hasn't taken the team to the dance in 13 tries, and number 14 isn't looking great either. For the first decade or so of his career we didn't see injury problems like this, his teams just regularly underperformed in the conference tourney in Richmond. Moving to Baltimore would help, but Bill Coen (at Northeastern) can coach absolute circles around Bru and that was the problem at the end of last year. People want to talk about the Lee injury last year, but a team with 6 seniors including Chris Fouch and Frantz Massenat went .500 in a bad conference and didn't get out of the first round of the conference tourney. With or without Lee, Bru deserved all of the credit - negative - that he received last year. To be honest, he plays one defense and has three offensive plays. He's not outcoaching anyone, ever. He is bringing in good kids and running a clean program, and for that he deserves and gets credit. But his lack of flexibility kills him as a basketball coach.

JD: Following up on that, was that University of the Sciences game more an aberration than a "you can't make this stuff up" type of game?

DC: Jumping ahead to the Sciences game question, they rested Allen for that game, and also had no Austin Williams; who dressed vs Penn State and might be available for the Iona game. For what it's worth, I never printed on the Sciences game because I wasn't there and I thought the coaches took it as a glorified scrimmage and a chance to give guys a rest/ other guys a chance. That game didn't concern me in the least. Lee stumbled at the Penn State game, but has been outstanding this year and will compete for conference POY in the CAA.

JD: Is the lack of a true interior presence outside of Mohamed Bah more of a concern for this game, considering the Dragons will have their hands full with David Laury?

DC: The interior presence that we all expected was Rodney Williams. A little undersized but he showed some serious talent and athleticism last year. He has good hands and can run the pick and roll well, but he has vastly underperformed this year. Not sure if he's just been struggling, if he is banged up, or if its just tough sledding - DU has faced some elite front lines already this year, and Bru's offense never gets the ball to the big men so it's tough for them to feel involved. While Bah is the bigger body and has been drawing some tough defensive assignments, his lack of quickness gets him in trouble. I'm hoping we see Austin Williams (no relation to Rodney) soon as he showed some explosive athleticism as well. If he shows, and Rodney starts playing, DU will be fine up front.

JD: Aside from defending Laury, where do you see the other keys to victory for Drexel?

DC: The concern for Drexel with Laury, and as a key to win too, is how well they match up. DU will try to run a three guard/two forward set against a team that is running a four-guard set. Every time, (see Brandon Taylor's 4-for-9 from three in the first half for Penn State last game) the DU big that has to cover the guard gets beaten to shreds on the perimeter. They were able to adjust in the second half of the Penn State game and shut down Taylor, but odds are they blow it again in the first half of this one (again, rigid coaching). Drexel's constant man to man is usually fine in shutting down the guard vs. guard matchups behind the arc, so expect the game to hinge on Laury and the big vs guard matchup for Iona. If those guys abuse the Drexel D, the Dragons will be in trouble, but if they show up flat, it'll be a much lower scoring game for Iona than they anticipated.

JD: Going back to the first 10 games, it looks like the Dragons have competed in almost all of them. With that said, how close is this team to potentially turning the corner in CAA play?

DC: The devil has been in the turnovers. DU lost point guard Major Canady before the season, and freshman Rashann London has been learning the hard way, and he's backed up by Freddie Wilson who absolutely no one wants to see running the point (Kevin WIllard at Seton Hall where Wilson transferred from: "Freddie is a bonehead"). London is a fine ball handler, but gets beat on high school level passing, he still doesn't understand the speed of the defense and will throw a lazy bounce pass that gets picked off for a dunk a couple times a game. Last year with Massenat, the Dragons turned the ball over on 13 percent of their possessions, this year it's over 20 percent. That's five less shots a game, and they're all possibly leading to fast breaks the other way. That was absolutely the difference in the USC loss, and had a big part to play against La Salle as well. It's a point of emphasis within the team right now and for the final 35 minutes of the Penn State game, they only turned the ball over five times. If the Dragons clean that up, along with Tavon Allen looking much more healthy the last two games and getting Austin Williams back, yes, they can turn the corner come conference season, especially in a weak CAA. All of that is why this game is important to DU. This is where we learn if they have turned the corner going into the season.  This game would have been a blowout a month ago, but with some good signs already happening in the Penn State game, I think this is suddenly very winnable.

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