The 2010-11 Drexel Dragons (21-10) season ended with a disappointing nail-biting loss to VCU (62-60) in the CAA tournament. With every NCAA tournament win by VCU – the Rams won the hearts of the nation as the Cinderella story, eventually reaching the NCAA Final Four – the disappointment of that loss grew. Not out of envy, as the entire CAA benefitted from the Rams run, but out of an unfulfilled destiny.
Now, some seven months later, Drexel is sitting atop as the pre-season favorite to win the CAA and represent the conference in “The Big Dance” this season.
“We knew we would be picked to finish high this season,” Drexel Coach Bruiser Flint explained. “This league is about experience and seniors. We have both this year.”
Flint is well aware of “what could have been” last season. But he’s not looking back, using the VCU run as a sign of the changing landscape in college basketball.
“Five years ago George Mason – the first CAA team to reach the Final Four – gave us (CAA) a lift. VCU’s run last season put us on the national map.”
Drexel returns four of their top five scorers from last season, including CAA Pre-Season First Team selection senior Sammie Givens (12.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg) and Second Team selection junior Chris Fouch (14.9 ppg).
But Flint, in his 11th season at Drexel, has always been a part of the rough and physical play of basketball in the northeast. Having scorers is a wonderful luxury to have, but to win titles a team has to be equally successful on the defensive end of the court.
This is where junior guard Derrick Thomas (6’4”) comes into play. Thomas, a starter in every game since his freshman season (not including senior day), is sort of an enigma on a team blessed with highly touted stars.
You won’t find Thomas’ name on the All Pre-Season team lists. He won’t stand out in the box score when the game is over. Not this quiet unassuming star. He does the dirty work for the Dragons so others can thrive and the team can win.
The New York, NY native learned to play defense in perhaps the toughest place there is to learn, the playgrounds of New York City. Where offense is the name of the game and guarding your opponent tightly is a challenge to a physical confrontation.
Thomas would later move from New York to Washington, DC to finish his high school career at St. Johns College HS. There, he would refine his physical play on defense into an art.
“I developed my defensive skills at an early age. Each year I improved. It is something I always took pride in,” Thomas explained.
The Dragons’ selfless leader on the defensive side of the court is typically assigned to the opponent’s top perimeter scoring threat.
“He gives us a physical presence,” Flint said describing his unheralded defensive leader. “He is one of the best defenders in the conference and gets better each season as a result of working hard in practice.”
VCU’s run last season was the result of a team willing to make individual sacrifices for the betterment of the team. Each game they played during the tournament had a different star. This is the hardest thing for a coach to accomplish when a team is in front of the national spotlight. Everyone wants to be the star, and this is their chance to make a name for themselves.
“Watching what they (VCU) accomplished, we definitely believe we can make a run in the tournament,” Thomas said.
“As the team picked to finish first in the CAA we have a bulls-eye on our chest. In one way it is a curse. We will get everyone’s best game. It also motivates us. We know we have to work hard in practice.”
Drexel will have a great deal of success this season. This is a team loaded with talent and focused on winning the CAA. Although they will take everyone’s best shot, quiet leaders like Thomas will keep the Dragons focused.
“I know my role. It’s about doing whatever it takes for this team to win.”