A Day in the Life of Mid-Major Basketball at Drexel UniversityPosted by CNguon on January 9th, 2013
Danny Connors is a RTC correspondent. He filed this report after spending last Friday with the Drexel University basketball team. It’s a fascinating read about the ins and outs of a 16-hour day during the regular season at a mid-major college basketball program.
I have been in the locker room before and after games, coached at the camps and traveled with the team, but never in my life have I spent a day as a fly on the wall in the Drexel University basketball offices. That changed Friday, as I shadowed the staff through a long day of preparation and practice.
I’ll take you through the day:
- 5:06 AM – Drexel associate head coach Mike Connors — oh by the way he’s my Dad — woke me up. My eyelids wanted another couple minutes (or hours) of rest, but my brain prevailed. I got up and showered.
- 5:30 AM – I scrambled to find my notebook and phone charger. I walked outside and my Dad already had the car running. The car lights brightened an otherwise dim, black, shivery morning.
- 5:50 AM – The train came into sight at the Yardley Station. We walked up the steps to a relatively empty train. Very few suits were parked in the worn, cushioned seats at this hour, mostly blue-collar workers commuting to the city.
- 6:56 AM - We arrived at 30th Street Station and started walking to Drexel. The sun was yet to peak it’s head over Philadelphia. “It’s dark when I leave the house, it’s dark when I get back,” Connors said, “I haven’t seen the sun since September.”
- 7:06 AM – My Dad and I walked into the freshly renovated basketball office. The building was empty aside from a man sitting on a chair down the hallway. It was Drexel legend Calvin Hicks, the mentally handicapped 50-year-old man whose title is “assistant to the head coach” but wholeheartedly believes he’s a coach. Hicks’ humor, undying love, and enthusiasm for Drexel sports have made him a recognizable figure anywhere on campus. He travels with the men’s basketball team and sits courtside at all their games where he can be heard yelling through his Drexel megaphone. Hicks was putting on his shoes, getting ready for a workout on the elliptical machine. Still drowning in my tired trance, I couldn’t believe Hicks was already in the office. “When did you get here Cal?” I asked. “Been here since 5:15,” Hicks said.
- 7:35 AM – Connors opened up his laptop connected to a nearby monitor to scout Drexel’s next opponent, Towson. After watching five of Towson’s previous games yesterday, he had a grasp on the Tigers’ style but wanted to watch a couple more games to put highlights in a scouting tape for the team. Connors said he had done every scouting report in the last 17 years for head coach Bruiser Flint, dating back to their time together at UMass. Previously, he had to get tapes from other coaches, but now the Drexel staff uses DragonFly, an online program “designed to secure, manage and deliver digital coaching and evaluation content anywhere in the world,” according to its website.
- 9:22 AM – The door to the office opened abruptly. “Frantz [Massenat] not practicing, he’s got a 102-degree fever. His girl had it yesterday,” said the Drexel trainer Mike Westerfer. Massenat, the Dragons’ junior point guard and CAA preseason Player of the Year, joined Daryl McCoy, Chris Fouch, Dartaye Ruffin and Damion Lee on a list of significant contributors who are nursing injuries and health issues.
- 9:42 AM – Hicks walked into the office after his workout. “I worked hard, pull it, it’s all wet,” he said, pointing to his shirt, referring to the sweat stained Drexel dry-fit he donned. Despite the intrigue, Connors refrained from feeling Hicks’ drenched sweat sponge.
- 10:15 AM – Brandon Weems, the staff assistant who accompanied Chris Fouch to his doctor’s appointment, returned to the office. “Doctor said to put the crutches away and start rehabbing.”
- 10:45 AM – The coaching staff walked upstairs to the John A. Daskalakis center for the 11 AM practice. The staff strode onto the court and got straight to business warming up the team. Connors worked with the big men at one basket while Bobby Jordan and Matt Collier, the two other assistants, worked with the guards at the other.
- 11:11 AM - After stretching, the Dragons went over their plays. With Massenat and McCoy not practicing and Lee and Ruffin only able to partake in some drills, Drexel looked like a depleted team. Players were forced out of position, chief among them was 6’7” redshirt freshman Tavon Allen who was shuttled into point guard duty. Allen, primarily known as a shooter, learned on the go, but seemed to have some prior experience playing the position. As Drexel got deeper into its playbook, Flint asked Allen if he knew the next play. “Yeah,” Allen responded. The long-armed, slender freshmen looked around and thought for a second. “Oh wait, no I don’t.”
- 11:50 AM – The Dragons moved on to defensive assignments against Towson. Connors stood at the top of the key with diagrams of Towson’s sets in hand, directing the scout team. Flint marched around the floor in his navy sweatsuit, telling the team Towson’s tendencies and how to best defend them. The head coach, in his 12th season at Drexel, zeroed in on Jarelle Benimon, a 6’8” aggressive scorer who transferred from Georgetown to Towson. “He’s thinking score every single time,” Flint said, “he can go coast to coast. That’s why Daryl’s [McCoy] hurt. He doesn’t want to play against him.” McCoy, a tough, bearded, physically imposing, defensive-minded center, sat on the bench with ice wrapped around his right ankle and smiled. Defense in the paint was a point of emphasis, as the Dragons geared up for Benimon and fellow Big East veteran, Bilal Dixon, a former Providence Friar. “They rebound the sh– out of the ball,” Flint said, challenging his squad.
- 12:30 PM - After working on offense and defense, the Dragons moved on to shooting, separating into groups of three or four and coming off curls around dummies. Every three minutes, the groups would switch baskets and shoot from a different spot from the floor, getting fed from a different coach at each hoop. The record was 41 made shots in one period.
- 12:46 PM – Again separated in groups, this time of two or three, Drexel worked on free throw shooting. Kazembe Abif, a sophomore forward, missed three in a row and appeared flustered. “Take a deep breath Kaz,” Connors said encouragingly. Abif took an accentuated breath, his shoulders rose and his neck shrunk, as the ball lay cradled in his right hand. The lefty bounced the ball twice and brought it over head his head. He shot. Swish. His body language screamed, “finally.”
- 1:14 PM – One ball rested at midcourt. The benches were clear, void of injured players. The bike wasn’t in use. The entire team stood in one circle around the ball. Senior captain Derrick Thomas walked into the middle of the circle and picked up the ball, holding it straight in the air above his head. The rest of the squad followed as the circle molded into a hodgepodge of navy and gold practice jerseys. “Team,” they said in unison.
- 1:27 PM – The Towson game was Saturday, but Tuesday was another challenge, as Drexel will then welcome the Northeastern Huskies. Before the match-up against Towson, Connors requested the discs for the Northeastern scouting report. It never stops, I learned.
- 1:45 PM – I walked a block to Drexel Pizza for lunch with Collier, Jordan and Winston Smith, the director of basketball operations. The wood-paneled walls were aged, and featured pictures of past and present Drexel basketball players. The pictures looked familiar from the old basketball office. The coaches ordered their lunches without looking at the menu and sat down. It was clear that this is a group that sleeps, eats and breathes Drexel basketball, a trio dedicated to their craft. Even on lunch break, the guys talked about the squad, the physical practice, the perpetual injuries, updated each other on the recruiting front, and how to solve the issues that have led Drexel to a disappointing start.
- 2:24 PM – The staff convened in Flint’s office for an unofficial meeting. Connors stayed in his office to finish the Towson scouting report. The assistants gave recruiting updates to the head man and the trainer updated Flint on the Drexel disabled list. Flint watched film of the Drexel team while listening. His office is a shrine to his accomplished career with newspaper articles and pictures everywhere. My favorite? There’s a gem of Bill Clinton inside the UMass locker room during the Calipari era.
- Around 4ish PM – I fell asleep on the office floor. I’m not built for this life. Waking up at 5:00 in the morning had taken its toll on me. While I slept, Jordan showed a recruit from North Carolina around the city campus. Because the academic buildings were locked for winter break and the windy weather, the tour was quick. After checking out the office and talking to the coaches, the recruit and his family went back to their hotel, eager to watch Drexel play the next day.
- 4:43 PM – For the second time in the day, my peaceful sleep was cut short by my Dad. “Yo, it’s time for the walk-through.” After going over the Towson plays at practice, the walk-through is a way for the coaches to cement the defensive game plan to the players. We walked upstairs and I soon learned this was nothing like a traditional practice. The players wore hoodies and sweatpants and there wasn’t the same energy. No one was running or clapping. Only one ball was in use. Everything was methodical and explanatory. Against the Towson guards, Flint told the Drexel bigs defending the pick-and-roll to hedge hard. “The reason why we’re stepping out hard is because those guys struggle when they can’t just put their heads down and go,” the coach said. The scout team walked through the main Towson set and Flint saw something fixable. “You don’t always have to chase,” Flint told Damion Lee, regarding how to guard the four-high set, “you can go over or under.”
- 5:40 PM – The team walked downstairs to the locker room to view the highlight tape Connors had completed. While the walk-through showed players what to expect, the scouting report was a way for the squad to envision the sets they’ll defend. The video broke the sets into different groups, from the high-low, to drag screens and flex cuts among others. The players sat in front of their lockers in a semicircle fashion around the monitor. Flint was seated in control of the video and Connors sat on the locker room floor, ready to show the players his report. As a clip of Towson freshman point guard Jerome Hairston graced the screen, Connors introduced the player and said, “we need to pressure him, he’s a freshman point guard. He’ll turn it over.” Later, the video keyed in on Benimon’s willingness to bring the ball up court, despite his stature. “If you don’t stop the ball, he’s going to keep coming. The guy’s like Barkley,” Flint said, pausing the video for emphasis. The next clip was Rafriel Guthrie, a dreadlocked junior college transfer who loves to attack. In the Temple game, Benimon passed out of the post to Guthrie who nailed a three. “That’s a scholarship basket,” Flint said, “you guys know what that means?” Crickets. “He shoots 17% from deep but that’s him saying ‘Yo dude, I got a scholarship too.’”
- 6:00 PM – After film, the team headed over to Landmark Cafe, a restaurant/bar in the building. I walked in with Bruiser whose charm and charisma were easily recognizable as he got pulled into conversations with other restaurant goers on the way to the table.
- 7:30 PM – Flint drove my Dad and me to the train station to catch the 7:56 train. The two debriefed the practice and walk-through.
- 8:56 PM – I finally arrived home, tired but invigorated.
That Friday I saw a team and a staff that values discipline, toughness and hard work. I saw a team with camaraderie and defined leadership and a staff that has known each other for decades. Bobby Jordan not too long ago was a walk-on at Drexel. Matt Collier was a manager at UMass and Winston Smith played for the Minutement under Flint and Connors. I saw a team and a staff that clearly holds preparation in high regard, which fully coincides with one of Flint’s favorite quotes. “The pressure isn’t to perform, it’s to prepare.” And prepare they do.
The next day, Drexel made a valiant comeback but lost to Towson by three points in its first CAA home game and followed that up with an overtime loss to Northeastern on Tuesday night. The Dragons now stand at 5-10 overall on the season, and 1-2 in the CAA.