Building a championship team requires certain ingredients. Some necessary, and others suggested.
Through the course of NCAA history, there are common denominators with most champions — elite point guard play, a tenacious rebounder, and wings who can make shots.
Drexel had all of this when it clinched its first NCAA tournament berth in 25 years on Tuesday night with a 63-56 win over Elon in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament final.
The ole “chip on your shoulder” term is overused. Any team can adopt that label, but maybe Drexel has some legitimacy to playing with an edge. It’s a roster full of transfers, players from overseas wanting to make a name in the states, and some who felt they were overlooked recruits.
“It’s a huge credit to coach [Zach] Spiker for basically turning the program around in just a couple of years,” Camren Wynter said. “Taking chances on different guys who maybe didn’t have the hype as other players. That’s just how we’re built, and that’s how we play.”
Wynter is the point guard and leader. He’s from Hempstead, N.Y., which is close to several major D-1 programs that passed up on him. All he’s done in three seasons is win Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Year, join Drexel’s 1,000-point club, be named first team All-CAA, and win the 2021 CAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
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“None of the individual awards ever meant much to me,” Wynter said. “I’m just grateful that we got the job done.”
James Butler is that tenacious rebounder. Since transferring from Navy in 2017, he’s averaged more than eight rebounds in three seasons. He was named third team All-CAA the last two years.
The wings who can shoot Drexel out of bad plays are Mate Okros and Zach Walton. Okros has made 40% of his threes in two collegiate seasons, including 12 of his last 17. Walton is more of a shot creator who can handle the ball off a screen and rise over a defense. His three-point percentage spiked from 26.5% last season to 39.2% in almost the same number of attempts per game.
It’s a been a long journey for Walton. The sixth-year senior arrived at Drexel in 2018 with two seasons of eligibility. His first year ended after seven games due to injury, and he averaged 12.2 points in 2019-20. Drexel applied for a medical redshirt for Walton’s 2018-19 season, and the waiver was approved. If it weren’t for his injury, he wouldn’t be on this year’s team.
“It’s rewarding,” Walton said. “This year we just stuck with it, I stuck with it, and we got to where we wanted to be.”
Those are players were good last season, when Drexel finished 14-19 and eighth in the CAA. The Dragons needed more players to emerge for a run at a CAA title.
T.J. Bickerstaff is one of the most athletic players in the CAA. The game felt too fast for him as a freshman. He was often caught in “no man’s land,” leading to offensive fouls, travels or poor shot selection. Bickerstaff was once recruited by Power 5 schools, and it’s easy to see why. His scoring jumped from 4.8 to 10.6 points per game. Most importantly, his turnover percentage went from 22.2 to 16.8%.
Matey Juric was a candidate for the CAA’s Sixth Man of the Year again due to his tenacious on-ball defense, and don’t look at freshman guard Xavier Bell’s scoring average (3.6 points per game) — he’s a future double-digit scorer in the CAA. Spiker moved him to the starting lineup six games ago and each of his three double-digit scoring games have come in that stretch.
The foundation for this team was laid long before it clinched the CAA championship. As evidenced by its preseason top-three ranking in the CAA, this was the year things were supposed to come together, and despite an inconsistent regular season, Drexel delivered when it mattered most.
“We’re just hoping that this is the start of a new culture — a winning culture here at Drexel,” Walton said. “We’re hoping for years to come we can continue this culture.”