Wednesday, December 02, 2009

#3 Wildcats Host Drexel Dragons at Pavilion - Dragons Try to Make It Two in a Row - A Preview

To the Villanova Wildcat faithful-

The Wildcats - exalted to #3 in Monday's AP poll - will host the crosstown rival Drexel Dragons at the Pavilion, on Wednesday evening at 7:00 PM... In terms of television, unfortunately, the game will only be available on Villanova: All-Access....  and of course, Ryan Fannon and Whitey Rigsby on radio...

Drexel hopes to defeat the Wildcats for the second straight time.  After losing all 17 previous contests to Villanova, the Dragons scorched the Pavilion with an upset, back in December 2006... here's my game story...

A preview of tonight's game...

The #3 Wildcats take a perfect 6-0 mark into the game.  It will be their last home game for three weeks, however.  The program suffered a setback recently, as reported by The Villanovan Sports Blog, with the discovery that freshman center Mouphtaou Yarou has contracted hepatitis B.  (This was widely rumored, but not officially confirmed by Villanova until yesterday.)  Of course, we wish him a speedy recovery.  There is no timetable for him to return.

Looking at Drexel...

James E. "Bruiser" Flint

The Dragons carry a 3-4 record to the Pavilion.  They are coached by James E. "Bruiser" Flint, a 1987 graduate of St. Joseph's, who became an assistant to John Calipari at Massachusetts, during the Minutemen's heyday in the mid-1990s.  Massachusetts reached the Final Four in 1996, after being ranked #1 for most of the year, but fell to the other superpower that year, Rick Pitino's Kentucky, in the Final Four.

Calipari resigned after that season, and Flint replaced him.  He could not replicate Calipari's record, though, in spite of the brand-new Mullins Center.  Flint got the Minutemen to the NCAA tournament in each of his first two seasons, but they were eliminated in the first round each time.  In his third season, 1998-99, they missed postseason play completely.  After a NIT bid in 2000, they missed postseason play once more in 2001, after which Flint was fired.

This is where Flint intersects with Villanova history.  While Flint was at the helm in Massachusetts, the teams played a home-and-home series, with Villanova triumphing at the Pavilion, 66-55, on December 15, 1998.  Massachusetts won the return game, on December 16, 1999, by a single point, 52-51.  It was widely believed (and accurately, as it turned out), that Flint would be fired, unless Massachusetts reached the NCAA tournament during 2000-01.

Coincidentally, at the same time, Lappas's position at Villanova was becoming untenable, as the team had missed the NCAA tournament by one game in both 2000 and 2001.  According to unconfirmed reports, Villanova had privately told Lappas that if he didn't make it to the tournament in 2002, he would be fired.  Lappas - knowing that with much of his talent leaving, the odds of that wouldn't be high - decided that he would be interested in seeking the vacancy at Massachusetts, succeeding the ousted Flint.

And so, everyone won - Lappas ended up at another program, Villanova didn't have to buy out his contract.  And most importantly, Villanova was able to offer the job to Wright, who was on the verge of leaving Hofstra to take the head coaching job at Rutgers.

Flint decided to return to Philadelphia, where he had grown up and also played at SJU.  (When SJU's John Griffin abruptly resigned after the 1995 season, SJU narrowed its coaching choices to Phil Martelli and Flint, and ultimately went with Martelli.)  He was introduced as the new coach at Drexel, succeeding Bill Herrion, in 2001-02, the same year Wright began at Villanova.

Flint has done well at Drexel, and this is now his ninth season.  In his first six seasons, he piloted the Dragons to four NIT bids, an impressive feat for a CAA program.  His seventh season, 2007-08, was pretty rough; the Dragons suffered a 20-loss season, going 12-20 overall and 5-13 in the CAA.  But last year, they rebounded, going 15-13 overall, 10-8 CAA, although they did not receive a NIT bid.

Flint vs. Wright - The Best-Dressed Coaches in the Land?

Flint has always been among the - and I would say the most - well-dressed coaches in all of college basketball.  As far as I can tell, he has never coached against Wright before.  Accordingly, Wright faces an opposing coach in Flint, whose wardrobe rivals, and arguably surpasses, his own, in terms of quality and style.  Regrettably, with the game not on TV tonight, I'll have to wait till the 11 PM news to comment on this major confrontation on the sidelines.

2009-10 Season So Far - 3-4 overall

Drexel dropped its first three games, as the Dragons struggled to ignite their breath.  They fell @ SJU, Flint's alma mater, in the season opener, and the inaugural game for SJU's renovated Hagan Field House.  They also lost @ Niagara and @ Rutgers.

They then made the shortest road trip in all of college basketball - namely, the Penn / Drexel rivalry.  The Dragons crossed the street to the Palestra, and defeated the Quakers, 58-49, for their first win.  They then won home games against Vermont (Rollie Massimino's alma mater) and Toledo, before losing to Cornell on Sunday.  Tonight will be Drexel's third battle against a Big Five member.


This is certainly a game that Villanova should win easily.  Drexel has losses to Niagara, Rutgers, and Cornell, and for the third-ranked team in the nation, playing on its true home court, it's a must-win.  But of course, when local teams are involved, one never knows...

Villanova / Drexel Series History

Villanova won the first 17 meetings in the series.  One of the sole dubious distinctions, in Jay Wright's eight-plus seasons at the helm on the Main Line, is that he is the first coach to lose to Drexel.  This is even more ironic, in light of the fact that Wright began his coaching career as an assistant at Drexel, under the late Eddie Burke.  (Wright once mentioned his pleasant memories of participating in Burke's "Dragon Wagon", a means of publicizing the University City school's program.)

The series is nearly as old as Villanova basketball itself.  The Wildcats launched their program under Michael Saxe in 1920-21; the Wildcats met the Dragons for a home-and-home series, in just their fourth series of intercollegiate play.  On February 6, 1924, the host Wildcats defeated Drexel, 29-25; on March 5, in the return game at Drexel, the Wildcats swept the series, triumphing 25-22.

With two close games, the teams probably decided that it was worth facing each other the following season.  However, the game was incredibly lopsided; on March 7, 1925, the Wildcats genuinely slew the Dragons, by a 50-11 score (not a typo).  Perhaps due to this inequity, the series then lay dormant, until the 1950s.

The series was revived for four years during that decade, with two home-and-home series.  The Wildcats managed to win all four, now 7-0 against Drexel.  The fourth and final game was on January 21, 1959, @ Drexel.  The Wildcats cruised to a 62-46 victory.

For reasons which aren't entirely clear, the series ended for the next two decades.  The formation of the Big Five in 1955-56 may have had something to do with it, although Villanova was still playing Drexel in the third and fourth seasons of the Big Five.

The series resumed on February 4, 1980, after a Rip Van Winkle-esque 20 years' passage.  Rollie Massimino guided the Wildcats to a 94-76 victory @ Jake Nevin Fieldhouse.

Five years later, halfway through the 1980s, the teams began meeting regularly, playing six games from 1985 to 1990.  During the Wildcats' magical 1985 NCAA championship season, they faced Drexel for the first - and only - time at the Palestra, winning 63-55.

The series then shifted to the then-brand-new Pavilion, where it has remained ever since.  During Christmas time in 1986 (the Pavilion's second season), the visiting Dragons fell, 62-50.  On February 22, 1988 - a year which saw the Wildcats reach the Elite Eight - Villanova won, 90-73.

The Dragons would visit the Pavilion for the next three years, culminating in a Thanksgiving time victory by the Wildcats on November 26, 1990, 92-71.  Villanova had now won all 15 contests.  However, the series would now lie dormant, until Wright became head coach after the 2000-01 season, succeeding Steve Lappas.

Drexel's reappearance at the Pavilion, after a dozen years had passed, likely had a great deal to do with Wright's gratitude to the Dragons, as well as his desire to rebuild Villanova's relationships within the Greater Philadelphia basketball community.  (Villanova had just announced its intention to restore the full round-robin City Series, prior to the 1999-2000 season.)

Accordingly, on November 22, 2002 - the beginning of Wright's second season on the Main Line - the Wildcats breezed by the Dragons, 64-41.  It was Drexel's fewest points against Villanova since 1959.

The next meeting came as a surprise.  The Dragons made an unplanned appearance at the Pavilion on St. Patrick's Day, 2004, in the opening round of the NIT.  It was the first time that the schools had met in a postseason tournament.  The Wildcats won, 85-70, Villanova's record was now a sterling 17-0.  My game story - Wildcats Slay Dragons, 85-70, in NIT Opener...

In 2005-06, Villanova made a Sweet 16 run, and the Dragons reappeared on the regular-season schedule for the first time in three years.  Although the Wildcats had lost key players such as Allan Ray and Randy Foye, it did not seem likely that the 18th game of the series, scheduled for December 9, 2006, would be much trouble.

But, ironically, Wright became the first Villanova coach to fall to the flames of the Dragons.  In one of the biggest victories in Drexel basketball history, the Dragons stunned the Wildcats, 81-76, at the Pavilion... 

That was the last meeting between the schools, until this evening.

Speaking of that...

A Logical and Frequent Question - Why Isn't Drexel in the Big Five?

It's time to address that.  Here is the best answer I can offer, although it's not definitive...

Drexel did not become part of the Big Five, because it was not playing big-time basketball at the time it was proclaimed.

This, to me, is the most plausible answer.  It would have made more sense to include the Dragons, if they had been.  Any conference arrangement is necessarily awkward, if it has an odd number of teams (ask the Big East!)  An inclusion of Drexel would have solved that problem.  This was particularly problematic due to the fact that there were frequent doubleheaders, and six teams would have been easier to schedule than a round-robin of five teams.

Further evidence is the fact that shortly after the Big Five was formed, Villanova was no longer playing Drexel - and it would have been logical to continue playing the Dragons, if they had been a big-time program.

Worth noting: In 2002, Drexel was invited to participate in the Big Five Classic at the Palestra, which made a great deal of sense, given their membership in the basketball community and the fact that an even number of teams was needed to stage the tripleheader.

The Drexel Dragon - "Mario the Magnificent" / CC BY 2.0

Personally, the Dragon is one of the best mascots in college basketball.  Surprisingly, given its status as a fierce, mythical creature, it is not widespread as a nickname.  I'm not aware of anyone, other than Drexel, who uses it.  If you visit the University Campus, there is a very nice sculpture of the Dragon at the southeast corner of 33rd and Market Streets.  Unveiled in December 2002, it's worth checking out on your way to or from the Palestra.  (Its official name is "Mario the Magnificent", as a courtesy to a prominent alumnus who had that first name.)

I'll have a full recap after the game...

Other detailed previews, worth checking out-

derp @ VUHoops - A Look at Drexel

Chris @ I Bleed Blue and White - preGame: #3 Villanova vs. Drexel

Go Wildcats!

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