Drexel, not in the Big 5, may be Philly's best

PHILADELPHIA -- The chants started with a little over a minute to play and Drexel closing in on its sixth straight victory last Friday, about to beat Temple for the first time since 1982. The chorus of "Big Five rejects, Big Five rejects," came raining down sarcastically from the upper deck of Temple's Liacouras Center, from the small Drexel contingent in yellow T-shirts with the big, blue "D" emblazoned on the front.

The Drexel Dragons in the past had been considered nothing but a city afterthought, orphans when it came to the unique Philadelphia college collective of the Big 5 – Temple, Villanova, Saint Joseph's, La Salle and Penn. Now the Dragons find themselves in a unique position all their own – as the best team in town in 2006-07.

Furthermore, Drexel is gaining national attention during its run, having beaten Saint Joe's (at the Palestra), Villanova, Syracuse (then ranked No. 23) and Temple all on the road. Some are proclaiming the Dragons as a sleeper to watch come NCAA Tournament time, this season's version of George Mason, Drexel's Colonial Athletic Association brother that reached last season's Final Four.

Just a quarter of the way into the season, the Dragons already have reached a number of firsts in the program's history. For one, Drexel's victory over Villanova was the program's first ever, having gone 0-17 previously against the Wildcats. Drexel's 8-2 start is its best since the Malik Rose-led Dragons went 12-2 to begin their 1995-96 season (and finished 27-4 with a third straight NCAA tournament appearance). Drexel also had never beaten three Big 5 teams in a season before this year.

Drexel coach James "Bruiser" Flint had an idea last November – yes, that's right, last November – that this Drexel team had the potential to be special. In the NIT Season Tip-Off semis, Drexel pushed Duke hard. The Dragons then battled UCLA to the buzzer in the third-place game, ultimately losing 57-56.

"That told me we could compete," said Flint, in his sixth season at Drexel after five years as a head coach at Massachusetts. "Athletically, we weren't overwhelmed. What happens when a mid-major plays a high-major is that they're overwhelmed athletically. We were able to stay in games. We were able to stay in there against UCLA or Duke.

"Actually, I did have a sense we'd be this good. We have good enough players, regardless of the team we were playing against, whether they were Villanova, Syracuse. This is the best-balanced team I've ever had; good enough athletically and decent enough to compete."

Senior 6-foot point guard Bashir Mason plays with poise. Chaz Crawford, a 6-10 senior forward, has been a defensive force inside, while 6-4 senior guard Dominick Mejia and 6-9 senior center Frank Elegar have provided a nice scoring combination.

A big concern entering this season was the Dragons' shaky shooting. Last season, Drexel finished dead last in the CAA, shooting 39 percent from the floor. Entering the Temple game, though, Drexel was shooting 45.3 percent this season.

Beating the Owls was a typical example of how Drexel has been successful. The Dragons trailed early 7-0, but chipped away with strong pressure and interior defense. Gradually, Drexel took a 31-30 halftime lead en route to a 69-54 victory.

"It seems like it's been that way all year. We were playing terrible and we were up by one at Temple,"
Flint said. "We were down seven to Villanova and 10 to Syracuse in the second half, only to go up by seven against 'Nova and to go 10 up against Syracuse. We've been in tough situations and responded that way."

It helps to have four savvy starters in Mason, Elegar, Mejia and 6-7 junior forward Randy Oveneke. It helps having shot-blockers like Crawford and 6-9 redshirt freshman Kenny Tribbett, who can be a real X factor for the Dragons this season after missing most of 2005-06 battling injuries and illness.

"With Bash and this whole team, we know what it's like to be down, we're used to dealing with certain situations," Crawford said. "Playing with each other for so long, working out with each other, we just know how to react. For example, when someone shoots, I usually have an idea of where to position myself for the rebound, because I know how people shoot on this team. We're more consistent now. We knew coming into this year we had a chance to be real good. We worked hard together this offseason. That's what drove us."

And it's what put a smile on Flint's face. Players gathered each morning around 8 a.m. at the Daskalakis Athletic Center to lift weights and shoot. DAC facility workers informed Flint that his players were hitting it hard.

"That was joy to my ears," Flint said. "I knew if we just a got a little better physically, we'd be better."

But Flint's ideas of success were challenged early this season, when the Dragons suffered consecutive losses to Penn (68-49) and Rider (89-81 in OT), the latter a game in which the Dragons were up by eight with 50 seconds left to play in regulation. That loss was particularly biting, but if Drexel does anything this season, if the Dragons do indeed become the nation's darlings in March, Flint may be able to look back at what happened after the disheartening Rider setback as the reason why.

Flint addressed his team for an hour after the Rider game, talking philosophically to the players in his raspy, throaty voice.

"Expectations could be tough sometimes, and our guys were feeling it a little bit, after starting 2-0," Flint said. "I wanted to make sure I let the guys know some of them were playing with house money last year. 'You're supposed to be good, then prove it to me,' I told them. It's all about how to prepare and doing it the right way will turn this around.

"I thought these guys were cheating themselves, because I thought we had a chance to be really good. I just sat down and talked to them about sometimes understanding what it means to win. It's about not just doing well, but doing what we need to do to win. Then we'll all have success. I also told my players we can't have too many more of these meetings, because that means we won't have a shot of doing anything."

Mason says this team can still improve on what it has done so far. The steady point guard also knows that if the Dragons somehow slip up, for example against visiting George Mason Thursday night at the DAC, all the attention will evaporate. Just like that. The skeptics will chime back in.

"And I would agree with the skeptics, if we lost," Mason said. "What we've done is good so far. But if we don't keep it up, it won't mean anything."

Flint is hoping for a large crowd Thursday, despite the fact that Drexel is on Christmas break. For Flint (and many others), the Patriots are tangible evidence that mid-major programs can succeed.

"Everything goes back to the whole George Mason thing last year, my guys saw that and put a lot of work into it," Flint said. "We know this has been good, but we've earned it. We've won the games we weren't supposed to win, because no one expected it. No one. I'm not going to fool anyone to say they did. But let's see what happens. Hopefully, we get some support. Philly is one of those towns where they think you're pretty good, they'll come out and watch you."

The Dragons may still be Big Five rejects, but there's no rejecting the fact that, right now, they're the best team in Philly.

Joseph Santoliquito is the Managing Editor of RING Magazine and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be contacted at JSantoliquito@yahoo.com.