Drexel coach Bruiser Flint never had false hope about an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament.
He said he had been burned twice before in 2007 and 2012.
The 2006-07 Dragons won at Syracuse, Villanova and Temple. But five CAA losses was a red flag for the selection committee and a ticket to the NIT after losing in the conference tournament.
The 2011-12 Dragons were picked to win the CAA. They won 27 games prior to selection Sunday and had a gaudy 16-2 conference record. But it wasn't enough -- again after losing to VCU in the conference tournament for the second time in five years.
The Dragons were picked to win the CAA again this season, so they're once again in position to contend for a bid. The odds are in their favor to win the league with VCU leaving for the A-10 a year early while Old Dominion, Georgia State, UNC Wilmington and Towson are all ineligible for the conference tournament because of either (A) bylaws that forbid teams leaving the conference to participate in the league tournament, or (B) poor APR scores.
Drexel is now 1-2 heading into the Anaheim Classic. In the preseason, the Dragons appeared to be a favorite to win the event, even with a first-round game against Saint Mary's and a supposedly rebuilding Xavier in their half of the bracket. Cal is the team to beat on the other side.
But the Dragons lost in overtime to both Kent State and Illinois State to start the season before beating Penn. And now their best player, leading scorer and lead guard Chris Fouch, is done for the season with an ankle injury.
The Dragons' hope isn't lost. But reality has settled in yet again for Flint. It's win the CAA tournament or bust -- nothing more and nothing less.
Mark Zerof/US PresswireBruiser Flint knows Drexel's March hopes may hinge on the CAA tourney.
"Over the last two times that we thought we might get a bid, it's still been about the Colonial tournament,'' said Flint prior to embarking on the team's West Coast trip. "We had a great schedule and we didn't get in. Last year we won a lot of games and didn't get in. It hasn't worked out for us to get an at-large bid. I'm not sure what the issue is, but it's always been about the Colonial.''
Fouch was averaging 16.7 points a game. He will now try for a sixth season of eligibility. The Dragons didn't have guard Damion Lee for their win over Penn due to a whiplash injury he suffered in the previous game. Flint is hopeful that Lee can play in Anaheim. He also is banking on Tavon Allen, who missed the first two games but scored 15 in the win over Penn, taking over for Fouch. He'd like -- and perhaps needs -- Frantz Massenat to be a major factor as well.
The Dragons have always been a guard-heavy team with forwards who are undersized but crash the boards and make plays by earning second shots. But turnovers have crushed the Dragons early this season, and without Fouch, taking care of the ball will be even more important.
Drexel is an example of a team that knows it has a small window to get in the tournament. We can all dance around how important this game or that game is to the bigger picture for a team, but unless a team notches enough wins and avoids dropping games it shouldn't, then it still comes down to the conference tournament. Even mighty Gonzaga and Butler have been there before: Average nonconference records have put immense pressure on them to win their conference tournaments and earn a bid rather than leaving the at-large bid to chance.
At 1-2, the Dragons are hardly out of contention. Win three games in Anaheim, and suddenly the at-large conversation can take on a new life. But not having Fouch has splashed cold water on the Dragons' dream of finally getting into the NCAA tournament without having to claim a conference title.
"The only thing we're talking about is winning the [conference] tournament and getting in the NCAA tournament that way,'' said Flint. "We understand we won a lot of games last year. But it's about winning the tournament. It always has been our focus.
"It hurts without Chris, but we knew we had a tougher schedule,'' said Flint, referring to the Anaheim tournament and games against Saint Joseph's and Davidson, teams that should also be in contention for NCAA bids. "We know we need to win the CAA tournament to get into the NCAA tournament. We know how hard it is to get in without it.''
Delaware, which is in the NIT Tip-Off semifinals after winning at Virginia, must be taken seriously as a CAA contender. Hofstra, which took out Marshall and South Dakota State at home, could be a threat, as well. George Mason may be the team to beat after winning at UVA and nearly taking down New Mexico in the Virgin Islands. Overall, though, this is as weak as the CAA has been since George Mason made the Final Four in 2006.
Flint isn't giving up hope. He said if Lee can play up to his potential, the Dragons can sustain the loss of Fouch. Fouch made the big baskets, so someone has to be willing to take and make those shots.
"We don't have the experience,'' Flint said. "But we can be fine. It is what it is now.''
Flint has been at Drexel for 12 years. He coached at UMass the previous five. He hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since his first two years with the Minutemen in 1996-97 and 1997-98.
"I'm a wise, old vet now,'' said Flint. "We were picked to win the league last year and we did. The only thing we didn't do was win the conference tournament.''
Nothing has changed despite the Fouch injury. The Dragons can still win the league and must win the conference tournament to get a bid.
"We can still do what we're predicted to do,'' said Flint.
And if the Dragons do earn an NCAA bid, that's all anyone will remember -- even if it's as an automatic qualifier.