Drexel Dragons surging as NCAA tournament nears

DAN GELSTON AP Basketball Writer Published:

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Game after game, the wins never stop coming at Drexel.

Same with the doubts.

The Dragons have the kind of gaudy winning streak and overall record that would put some power conference teams in the discussion for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

In West Philadelphia, though, the Dragons wonder if their resume is sturdy enough to even make the tournament for the first time since 1996.

Under coach Bruiser Flint, Drexel is having a season to brag about -- and you better believe Flint does his share of boasting. With good reason. The Dragons, out of the Colonial Athletic Association, are on a 16-game winning streak entering Saturday's game at Old Dominion.

The Dragons (24-5, 15-2) have won 22 of 23, clinched the top seed in the CAA tournament and are riding the second-longest win streak in the country behind No. 1 Kentucky.

Oh, and they finished 13-0 at home and are 10-3 on the road. Indeed, perhaps it's time for March Madness to make room for Drexel.

Not so fast. The harsh reality is this:

"Our guys know," Flint said, "we could have a good year and still be sitting at home."

The Dragons, of course, could erase all the doubts and fears on Selection Sunday with a championship next week in the CAA tournament. The Dragons can have their lowly RPI RIP with an automatic berth.

But that 15-year NCAA tournament drought, that started right when Malik Rose went to the NBA, would not be pushing two decades if it was so easy for Drexel to win the tournament. Only in 2003 did the Dragons reach the finals under Flint. They were knocked out in the first round three straight seasons before losing in the quarterfinals last season.

March is no guarantee for the Dragons. Neither is a solid regular season.

Drexel has been down this thorny path before, going 23-9 in 2006-07, with major non-conference wins such as at No. 23 Syracuse, a solid RPI, an optimistic feeling during the selection show, yet, only a one-and-done in the NIT to show for their success. The Dragons were eliminated from at-large contention because of five losses in the CAA and a semifinals loss in the conference tournament.

Reverse it this year.

The Dragons are the class of the CAA, a conference that has sent two teams to the Final Four in recent seasons. Their CAA dominance has been dampened by a weak non-conference schedule (Virginia the lone credible team) that has their RPI mired in the 70s.

Not good.

"There is little to nothing in recent committee history that would suggest a team with their profile gets an at-large bid because of their non-conference schedule being weak and their lack of wins over other teams in the field," said ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi, who has Drexel in the field of 68.

"Having said that, the bubble is incredibly soft, and there's not much doubt in my mind, having seen them play several times, they are one of the 37 best available teams, if it comes to that."

The Dragons believe their record alone is enough to get in, no matter how they fare in Richmond, Va. The CAA has shed its reputation as a one-bid conference.

Any fan who has had their March Madness bracket busted by Final Four teams George Mason (2006) and Virginia Commonwealth (2011) knows those teams are tough enough. Consider last season when three CAA teams made the field: George Mason beat Villanova and Old Dominion suffered a two-point loss against national finalist Butler.

"We've got a good enough team," Flint said, "to be in the field."

Samme Givens, a senior forward, is only the third Drexel player to reach 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. Sophomore guard Frantz Massenat leads the team in scoring and the CAA in 3-point shooting. Freshman forward Damion Lee has become a regular CAA rookie of the week winner. Derrick Thomas, Daryl McCoy and Chris Fouch are all strong contributors and played crucial roles in Drexel's rise to the top of the conference.

The questions about their worthiness of being included in the same tournament as Kentucky, Duke or North Carolina hounds them lately after every victory. Is it enough? Does Drexel deserve it? The worry can squeeze some of the fun out of the run.

"It does kind of take away from it a little bit," Massenat said. "OK, you're winning games and winning games, but it could still only be from one team in your conference that goes to the tournament no matter what your record is.

"We want to take things into our own hands anyway."

The Dragons are used to being overlooked. One of six Division I teams in Philadelphia, the Dragons are the only program not part of the famed Big 5 that includes Temple, Villanova, Penn, La Salle and Saint Joseph's. Their cozy gym is more suitable for high school games, even though 2,500 delirious fans at the Daskalakis Athletic Center -- die-hards are part of the DAC Pack -- can make it feel like a little slice of Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse.

No major teams, from Philly and beyond, want to play at Drexel. In recent seasons, the Dragons have been one of the best touring shows outside of "Rent," winning at aforementioned Syracuse, Louisville and Villanova. Their road-warrior reputation cost them this season, though, when the Dragons couldn't snag a Big East or a Big 12 road game.

"It's hard to get that big-time contender that wants to take a risk," Givens said.

Flint, puffing his chest for the Dragons, boldly proclaimed his team the best in the city earlier this season.

"I think we're the best team in Philly," Flint said. "I think we can beat anybody in the city."

Flint, who took Massachusetts to two NCAA trips after John Calipari left for the NBA, has somehow lasted 11 seasons at Drexel without the NCAA tournament on his resume. Some coaches are on the hot seat years after taking teams to the Final Four. For a program with only four career NCAA tournaments (1986, 1994-96), winning 20 games and being in the thick of CAA contention has been enough to keep Flint around.

"I know we haven't been to the tournament, but the school hasn't been to the tournament that much," he said. "I don't want to come out and say they've been patient, because we have been to the postseason and we have had some pretty good years, but I think they're realistic about their expectations."

The Dragons are realistic about this season, as well.

Maybe that's why they were all smiles at practice this week -- it's time the Dragons punch that dance ticket.