HARRISONBURG â€" A big preseason favorite to win the Colonial Athletic Association, Drexel has lost twice as often as it has won this year and barely resembles the team most observers expected to cut down the nets in Richmond this March.
Nevertheless, for a James Madison basketball team starving to be considered a league contender, todayâ€™s game against the visiting Dragons is huge. Even though Drexel has under-performed, point guard Devon Moore and the Dukes expect a grind against the rugged Dragons.
â€œItâ€™s a war, man. Itâ€™s a war. Itâ€™s a war,â€ Moore said. â€œThey play hard â€" theyâ€™re one of the hardest teams in the conference. Itâ€™s a big game for us to make a statement. We want to be a top tier team in this conference, and show that we can play with the best.â€
Even pre-war, the attrition has already begun. The Dukes (8-8 overall, 2-1 in the CAA) will be without senior forward Andrey Semenov (sprained ankle) and freshman guard Charles Cooke (broken wrist). Freshman guard Andre Nation, who said he injured his left shoulder in Wednesdayâ€™s 78-50 win over North Carolina-Wilmington but couldnâ€™t pinpoint when it happened, rested his arm in a sling during practice Friday afternoon.
Nation, who will receive an MRI next week, said he will still play today, but coach Matt Brady wasnâ€™t so certain.
â€œIâ€™d say not probable but possible,â€ said Brady.
Drexel (5-10, 1-2) has its own injuries to key players, and it goes beyond the season-ending broken ankle that ace sixth man Chris Fouch suffered in November.
Sophomore guard Damion Lee, the reigning CAA Rookie of the Year and a preseason all-conference first-team pick this year, missed the Dragonsâ€™ 63-58 overtime loss to Northeastern on Tuesday with a bone bruise in his right knee. Lee, who leads the team with 18.1 points per game, appears questionable for todayâ€™s game on national cable television (NBC Sports Network).
Drexel coach Bruiser Flint told KYW Newsradio in Philadelphia that Leeâ€™s status is â€œuncertain. Doesnâ€™t look good.â€ Flint also said that Daryl McCoy, a burly senior forward known for his defense and rebounding, will likely be out with a foot injury.
The Dukes said they are preparing as if both Lee and McCoy will play.
Whether those two starters are active or not, JMU is expecting the same tough-minded Dragons who won both meetings last season.
â€œAs much as any team in the league, you recognize what youâ€™re getting with Bruiserâ€™s teams,â€ Brady said. â€œYouâ€™re getting high-level defense, great rebounding, physical play. And to win a game, youâ€™ve got to fight to the bitter end and youâ€™ve got to make plays on both ends.â€
Drexel allowed a league-low 56.1 points per game last season en route to a CAA regular-season title and 19-game winning streak. This year, the Dragons are yielding an average of 66.2 points â€" mediocre given the low-possession nature of their games.
The drop-off is odd, because Drexel did not lose any standout defensive players. Flint believes his teamâ€™s struggling offense is the main culprit for the defensive regression.
â€œWe throw the ball away way too much,â€ Flint said. â€œNot only do we throw the ball away, we throw it away for baskets. Thatâ€™s killed us all season. People look at our defensive numbers and say, â€˜Your defensive numbers arenâ€™t very good. Youâ€™re usually a pretty good defensive team.â€™ But we donâ€™t give ourselves a chance to play defense at times. Weâ€™ve thrown the ball to teams, and theyâ€™re catching it and going to get layups. Thatâ€™s been our Achilles heel all season.â€
Drexel has turned it over on 18 percent of its possessions. That might bode well for JMU, which leads the league with a plus-2.25 turnover margin. The Dukesâ€™ 12.5 turnovers per game are the fewest in the league, while Madison forces 15 per game â€" second most.
JMUâ€™s full-court press has been effective at home this year, but the depleted Dukes might not want to stretch their defense given their newfound dearth of depth. Plus, the majority of Drexelâ€™s turnovers havenâ€™t been caused by opposing defenses using traps, so much as the Dragonsâ€™ ball-handlers making, as Flint called them, â€œunforced errors.â€
Junior point guard Frantz Massenat was the runner-up for CAA Player of the Year last season and the preseason pick to win the award this year, but he hasnâ€™t shown the same type of command as in 2011-12. The 6-foot-4 Massenat has committed four or more turnovers in seven games, and has 11 giveaways in the last two. His shooting is down to 40 percent.
â€œHeâ€™s forcing things a little bit,â€ Flint said. â€œI just told him, â€˜Look man, youâ€™re the preseason Player of the Year for a reason. You had an unbelievable year last year, but last year you understood, let me just do my job.â€™ And thatâ€™s what weâ€™re asking him to do. Weâ€™re asking him to just do his job.â€
The Dragons opened CAA play with a 77-60 win at Georgia State on Jan. 2, before losing tight home games to Towson and Northeastern. For all its struggles, Drexel is 3-1 in true road games this year.
â€œNames change every year, seemingly, but his teams are in every game,â€ Brady said. â€œI said to our team, â€˜Weâ€™re going to have to play really, really well to win this game. Throw out the records and the numbers and whoeverâ€™s playing for them. Brusierâ€™s teams really fight.â€™â€