Can Drexel Win the CAA Without Damion Lee?Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 6th, 2013
After losing senior guard Chris Fouch for almost the entire season and finishing in the bottom half of its league last year, Drexel’s 2013-14 campaign seemed to be one filled with resurgent optimism, especially after a promising month of November. The Dragons nearly beat UCLA in Pauley Pavilion on college basketball’s opening night before winning three straight contests, including victories over Elon and Rutgers, to advance to the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals in Madison Square Garden. There, Bruiser Flint’s squad jumped out to an early 27-8 lead on fourth-ranked Arizona, proving to a national audience — and perhaps itself — that it could play with anyone. But in the second half, CAA Player of the Year candidate Damion Lee went down with a torn ACL, and the outlook for Drexel this season changed in an instant. A team predicted to compete for the league title was suddenly and decidedly shorthanded.
With Lee, Frantz Massenat and Fouch, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility because of his ankle injury, the Dragons were set to have arguably the best backcourt in the conference. And while they still might, what with Massenat’s preseason all-conference stature and Fouch’s elite shooting ability, losing a player as dynamic as Lee undoubtedly lowers the team’s ceiling going forward. The question will be to what extent. At 6’6″, Lee led the team in scoring last season with 17.1 points per game, consistently displaying his ability to pull up from anywhere on the court and attack the rim when his team needed it. He was also an effective rebounder for his position, compiling four 20+ point, 10+ rebound performances over his career up to this point. With all three guards back and healthy this year, merely keying on Lee or attempting to shut down Fouch or Massenat was simply not a viable strategy for opponents; if one or even two guys had bad night, another of the backcourt stars was there to carry the load. Perhaps most importantly, the three of them on the court together meant that no one had to play outside of their comfort zones, unlike last season when Massenat struggled to be both point guard and relied-upon scorer each night.
So with Lee now out for the rest of 2013-14, Flint is again forced to squeeze the most out of a lineup missing one of its integral pieces. The good news for the veteran coach, though, is that his team appears to be adapting reasonably well. Since losing to Arizona in that fateful game last Wednesday, Drexel proceeded to become the first team since Ball State in 2000 to play in two straight triple-overtime games, according to ESPN Stats and Info, both of which it won. The first of these victories was a mini-upset over Alabama in the NIT third-place game in which junior forward Kazembe Abif stepped up with the best game of his career, scoring 15 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and hitting some late free throws to help put away the Tide. Yet while frontcourt guys like Abif and starter Dartaye Ruffin will certainly need to be consistent contributors as the season progresses, the player whose emergence might be the key for Flint is ambidextrous forward Tavon Allen. The 6’7″ sophomore was already beginning to break out before the team lost Lee — at one point during the second half of the win over Rutgers, he erupted for nine straight points to effectively seal the victory — and since the injury, Allen has been inserted into the starting lineup and is averaging 19.5 points per game. If he can learn to be more efficient (he shot a combined 13-of-41 from the field over the two games), Allen’s versatility and ability to create his own shot and draw fouls will enable Drexel to continue its winning ways heading into conference play.
So where do the Dragons project in the CAA standings now that they are without one of the conference’s best players? Considering that only three other teams rank inside the KenPom top 150 — Delaware, Northeastern and preseason favorite Towson — Drexel should still be a contender when conference play rolls around. A major issue might end up being depth, as Flint only played seven guys in Wednesday’s marathon win over Cleveland State. In fact, Fouch and Allen each logged 100+ minutes apiece over the course of the team’s last two games, the type of usage that could prove detrimental in the long run. Bench players like Major Canady and Rodney Williams will need to give Flint quality minutes going forward, especially when the Dragons face a team like Delaware that likes to push the tempo. Luckily, they should get a lift in the backcourt beginning on December 15 when guard Freddie Wilson becomes eligible after transferring from Seton Hall.
If all goes right for Flint, his Dragons should still have the capability to finish near the top of the CAA come March — but whether the team can get over the hump without Lee and reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996 remains to be seen.