By KEVIN ROSSI
When Drexel meets No. 5 Arizona on Wednesday night in the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden, it will be a rare chance for the Dragons to knock off a ranked team.
It’s not that Drexel coach Bruiser Flint doesn’t want to face the big boys; it’s that he can’t get them to play the Dragons.
Speaking exclusively to Philahoops in two separate interviews, Flint said Drexel has struggled to come up with a strong nonconference schedule for three reasons: past performances against top competition, their position in the Philadelphia basketball landscape, and their home arena.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, the Dragons have become victims of their own success in the local market and against some of the nation’s best.
In the last nine years, Drexel has road victories over nationally regarded programs Louisville, Villanova, Syracuse and Temple. Known as “guarantee” games, Drexel was paid a fee to play at Louisville and Syracuse to compensate for them not having to return game at the DAC, Drexel’s home court.
Road teams usually don’t win “guarantee” games. Drexel has. As a result, they haven’t frequently been invited back to power-conference venues. The Dragons’ game at UCLA this season was the first against a power conference for Drexel in the last three seasons.
“The guys in the Big East told me that other than Syracuse, we were the only other team on the ‘don’t play list’ because we’ve been able to go on the road and win some games,” Flint said. “We might get a team in the top five that will play us because they don’t care. But you get a middle of the pack Big East or ACC team, and they say they’re not paying us to come to play them because we’ve shown that we can win games like that.”
The Dragons have a similar problem locally. As an outsider to the Big 5 – which includes Philadelphia schools La Salle, Penn, Saint Joseph’s, Temple and Villanova – Drexel has had a difficult time getting Philly schools on its schedule.
Whereas the Big 5 teams play each other once every season, Drexel is lucky to get one game against a Philadelphia school in a season. The reason, according to Flint, is that the locals won’t play Drexel at the DAC. Drexel’s success against the Big 5 teams certainly doesn’t make the Dragons an attractive opponent.
In the nine seasons prior to this one, Drexel has played 19 games against Big 5 competition, going 10-9. Only two of those 19 contests – last season’s New Year’s Eve game against St. Joe’s and the 2008 matchup vs. Penn as part of ESPN Tip-Off Marathon – were played at the DAC.
Big 5 teams — and nationally regarded programs – have expressed a willingness to arrange a series against Drexel as long as the Dragons’ home game is at the Palestra and not the DAC.
Flint has said many times that the Palestra is not his home court; the DAC is. Flint’s belief is Drexel home games should be played at the DAC.
And that’s what has halted the Dragons’ almost-yearly series with neighborhood rival Penn. Drexel played the Quakers seven times in the last nine seasons (going 5-2), with six of the contests at the Palestra. Flint has tired of the one-sided arrangement.
“It’s not good business from the way I look at it,” Flint told Philahoops. “I would love to play them every year. I think it’s a great game for both schools. But the politics and business always play a part in a lot of this stuff, and unfortunately it’s a part of this now.”
Since Penn won’t agree to play the traditional home-and-home, Flint offered to go two-for-one with two games at the Palestra and one at the DAC. Still nothing. Penn stood by the standing agreement that all games – with the exception of special events like ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon game in 2008 – would be played at the Palestra, with Drexel given 2,500 tickets to sell to its fans and students to compensate for a loss in revenue for not playing at the DAC.
It’s not about the money for Flint. It’s about the respect and trying to fix the problem of having too many nonconference road games.
He pointed out that Penn is willing to travel to three of the four remaining teams in the city – Temple, Villanova, and La Salle. Saint Joseph’s plays all of its games against Penn at the Palestra, a decision that Flint said is up to them. He won’t stand for that, though.
“We’re in the middle now. When I first came here, we played a lot of local teams,” Flint, in his 13th season at Drexel, explained. “But then we beat them twice. And once we beat them twice, they don’t want to see us on the court again.”
Flint explained a common conversation that he will have with a Big 5 coach. He said that a Big 5 team will want to play Drexel one game at their on-campus home and one game at the Palestra. To Flint, that’s a no deal because it is a home-and-“neutral” and not a home-and-“home.” The way Flint sees it, it’s either both games at the Palestra or a true home-and-home.
This is an issue that Flint has with coaches outside of the Big 5 as well. Opponents want to play Drexel’s half of the home-and-home at the Palestra. Regardless of the proximity to Drexel’s campus, his feeling is the Palestra is a neutral site. If an opponent wants to play its half of the series on a neutral site as well, Flint will be all for playing at the Palestra. That’s a situation Drexel fans may see beginning as early as next season.
Over the last nine seasons, the biggest-named programs to agree to home-and-homes versus the Dragons at the DAC are St. Joe’s, Rhode Island and Creighton.
Last year, the Hawks beat the Dragons at the DAC on New Year’s Eve. This year, the two teams will square off at Hagan Arena on Dec. 18.
St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli sees the decision to go home-and-home with Drexel as the fairest way to do business and a win for the Philadelphia basketball community.
“I see it as a win for Philadelphia and a win for our program. When we play a road game 12 minutes from campus, I see that as being a positive,” Martelli told Philahoops. “It would be disrespectful to Bruiser and all that he’s accomplished to not play them in a home-and-home. Once we decided that we were not going to play (the series) at the Palestra every year, this was the fairest way to do it.”
Martelli continued, “It’s not a Philadelphia Big 5 game, but it is a Philadelphia game, and that creates a lot of excitement. That’s what I try to do in scheduling is to create excitement for our players, our fans, and for Philadelphia basketball.”
It probably doesn’t hurt Drexel that Martelli also has felt the scheduling slight, as teams have been reluctant to play the Hawks at Hagan Arena; and that Flint is a St. Joe’s alum, who played on a team assisted by Martelli.
In fairness to opponents, the DAC isn’t an attractive option. It has been holding back Drexel’s program for a while now. With a capacity listed at 2,509, the DAC ranks among the smallest venues in Division I college basketball.
Administration has been working to make improvements, like the recently added chair-backs, new basketball offices, and new home locker rooms. But the facility still come up woefully short.
“We have got to do a better job with our gym,” Flint said, frankly. “We have to make our gym more acceptable for people to say, ‘Alright, we will go in there and play.’ One of the big things we get it is, ‘Oh, we’ll come play you next year.’ They rarely come. We’ve got to talk about the visitor’s locker room and things like that.”
This may also come as surprise, but Drexel’s place in the Philadelphia basketball landscape also hurts its ability to schedule. Not belonging to the Big 5, the Dragons are left on the outside looking in.
“It’s one of those underlying things that people don’t understand about having all of these schools in Philadelphia,” Flint said. “They’ll go and play one of the traditional Big 5 schools instead of us.”
These are all major reasons why the Dragons do not have a home game this year until Dec. 4. Too many road games put a team in a tough place heading into conference play. Drexel fans see first-hand what the home-court advantage does for their team, so why would a team want to come to the DAC?
“For us to have an advantage, we can’t have 11 non-conference games with seven or eight games on the road and only three or four home games,” Flint said. “It’s hard. It’s hard for me to keep my job. It’s hard because people want to see you win.”
Getting on the right side of the home-away breakdown is not just a Drexel issue, though. It’s a CAA issue. Teams like VCU, George Mason, and Old Dominion, who left the conference for greener pastures, were able to do this. Finding those keys to success that others have found has been the topic of many conversations amongst the CAA coaches.
“Come conference time,” Flint said, “a lot of people look at you based on your perception going into conference play.”
He continued, “A lot of times, the teams in the league are going to be at best 6-5 or 5-6. When you have your whole league going into league play at 5-6, the perception of the league is not going to be very good. It plays a big part. As a conference and as a school, we’ve been talking a lot about how we need to change the dynamics of our schedule in terms of not always being on the negative side of home and away games.”
This struggle directly correlates to why the CAA traditionally has a tough time getting multiple bids to the NCAA tournament. If there’s a poor perception of the conference, then it’s going to be difficult to woo the selection committee.
Now, the Dragons will head to Madison Square Garden with a rare chance to impress the selection committee. Defeating Arizona on Wednesday and/or Duke or Alabama on Friday certainly would boost Drexel’s resume.
“Hopefully, we can win some of those games because it will make our strength of schedule even better,” Flint said. “We knew that getting to New York would be pivotal for us from an out-of-conference strength-of-schedule standpoint because Duke is No. 6, Arizona is (No. 5), and Alabama is going to be a top-100 team.”
It can be easy to look at Drexel’s schedule and tell Flint to schedule better opponents, but it’s just not that easy. College basketball is a business, for better or for worse. And the Drexel Dragons continue to learn this the hard way.
-Bracy column: Philahoops columnist Aaron Bracy thinks Flint should play home games at the Palestra. Read story HERE.
-Kevin Rossi covers Drexel for Philahoops. Reach Kevin at [email protected], or @Kevin_Rossi on Twitter.
-Philahoops staff writers Aaron Bracy and James Hill contributed to this story.