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National Notebook: Drexel on top in Philly

If basketball in the city of Philadelphia is a family affair, then Drexel has always been the red-headed step-child.

Philadelphia’s famed Big Five; a pseudo-conference of the city’s schools, includes Temple, Villanova, St. Joseph’s, LaSalle and Penn. Drexel was always on the outs.

Number 6 at a table for five.

Until this year.

The Drexel Dragons have gone from No. 6 to No. 1 in the City of Brotherly Love. The Dragons have beaten St. Joseph’s, Villanova and Temple this season with only an early season loss to Penn blemishing their city record. It’s the first time ever Drexel has vanquished three of its Philly foes in the same season. In fact, Drexel had recorded as many as two wins over Philadelphia teams just once before the season.

"The biggest surprise is we’ve been getting on front page of the papers,’’ Drexel coach James “Bruiser’’ Flint said. “That never happens.’’

Drexel’s success hasn’t been limited to Philadelphia. On Dec. 19, the Dragons traveled to Syracuse where the knocked off the 23rd-ranked Orange, 84–79, at the Carrier Dome.  The win was Drexel’s first road win over a ranked opponent ever.

“That game showed that ‘OK, we can go anywhere and play anyone and play them tough’,’’ Flint said. “Villanova? City games are like that. Syracuse was different. It’s not a city game. We’re in the gym by ourselves.’’

But to Philly’s basketball cognoscenti, Drexel’s wins over Villanova and Temple meant more than the win at Syracuse. And Flint knows it.

"For people around here,’’ said Flint, “the Temple and Nova wins were the top two.’’
First, Drexel had never beaten Villanova before. The Dragons were 0–17 against Villanova before the Dec. 9 win over the Wildcats.

And Temple? Beating Temple was a Philly thing.

“When you grow up in Philadelphia, you grow up playing at Temple,’’ Flint said. “You spend your summers at Temple. The Sonny Hill League is played there. And everyone grew up wanting to play for John Chaney.’’

Flint grew up eight blocks from Drexel’s city campus. He attended Episcopal Academy, which is located directly across the street from St. Joseph’s. He played at St. Joe’s, graduating in 1987. He was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 1998.

So Flint knows Philly. He knew Drexel, which didn’t start playing Division I basketball until 1970, had very little basketball tradition, especially in comparison to its Philly neighbors.

But Flint saw opportunity upon his arrival in 2001 as Drexel moved from the America East Conference to the Colonial Athletic Association.

“Being in America East, the feeling among the people and media was it wasn’t a very good conference,’’ Flint said. “What the people of Philly have come to realize is that our league is pretty good.’’

Drexel forward Chaz Crawford, a Philly kid, currently leads the CAA in both rebounding and blocks. Senior point guard Bashir Mason, a product of St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J., leads the CAA in steals. Senior Dominick Mejia is a transfer from North Carolina State who set a school record last year with 92 3-pointers.

But Drexel’s real Philadelphia story is junior center Frank Elegar. To say that Elegar played at St. Raymond’s High in the Bronx would be true, but just barely. He averaged six points per game as a high school senior. Elegar is averaging 15.0 points and 7.5 rebounds this season. He had a career-high 27 points in the win at Syracuse.

Drexel’s record stands at 10–2 going into a Saturday, Jan. 6, game against UNC-Wilmington. The Dragons have won eight in a row; their longest winning streak in five years.

And people are starting to notice.

The Dragons beat George Mason, last year’s March Madness Cinderella, on Dec. 28. Even though the students were on Christmas break, Drexel officials had to close the doors to the Daskalakis Athletic Center 10 minutes before tipoff.

“One thing about the people here in Phiadelphia is they love their college basketball,’’ Flint said. “If they think you have a pretty good team, they’re going to show up for your games. It’s been exciting for the school and the campus, especially since this is a college basketball city. All of a sudden, you’re the talk of the town.’’

Player of the Week

Arron Afflalo tied his career-high with 27 points to lead UCLA to a 96–74 victory over 14th-ranked Washington on Sunday. Afflalo hit five 3-pointers for the top-ranked Bruins.

Runner-up: Alando Tucker continues to play like a first-team All-American. He scored 29 points and grabbed eight rebounds to lead the Badgers to a 64¬–54 win at Georgia on Sunday. Tucker was 11-for-19 from the field. Wisconsin's 14–1 start is its best since the 1913-14 team went 15–0 for the season.

Freshman of the Week

Washington lost both games, but 7-foot center Spencer Hawes played terrific against Southern California and UCLA last weekend.

First, Hawes scored 24 points while playing 47 out of 50 possible minutes in the Huskies’ 86–79 double-overtime loss to USC on Thursday. Then, Hawes came back with a 21-point effort in Washington’s 96–74 loss to No. 1 UCLA on Sunday.

The Week Ahead

The showdown of the week is this Saturday in Eugene as undefeated and top-ranked UCLA prepares for its biggest test of the season when they visit the 13–0 Oregon Ducks. This will be UCLA’s second true road game of the season. The first comes Thursday at Oregon State.

Other biggies:
*Connecticut, which suffered its first loss of the season Saturday at West Virginia, takes a trip to another inhospitable venue as the Huskies travel to Baton Rouge, La., to play LSU on Saturday.

*Kansas State and freshman Bill Walker play at Texas A&M on Saturday. The Aggies were 11–2 heading into a Jan. 2 game with Winthrop, but they are still looking for their first signature win of the season.

*Remember the UNLV team that delayed Bob Knight’s ascension to No. 1 on the all-time coaching wins list? Well, the Rebels are 13–2 under coach Lon Kruger and they face nationally-ranked Air Force in a terrific Mountain West Conference game on Saturday.

Notes Around the Country

*One of the country’s toughest jobs opened when Hawaii coach Riley Wallace, 65, announced his decision to leave the school when his contract expires after this season. Wallace is winningest men's basketball coach in Hawaii history with a record of 325–256.

But it’s not easy winning off the mainland. When Wallace took over at Hawaii in 1987, the program had suffered through four straight losing seasons. The Warriors appeared in the NCAA Tournament three times and the NIT three times under Wallace.

*Notre Dame suspended starting guard Kyle McAlarney after he was arrested on a marijuana possession charge. McAlarney, who had been averaging 10.3 points a game, did not play in Notre Dame's 95–66 victory over Stony Brook on Saturday.

The suspension is indefinite, but it’s unlikely that McAlarney will play in Notre Dame’s game against Louisville on Wednesday.

*Georgia Tech could be without center Zach Peacock for a while. Peacock suffered a fractured right cheekbone in Tech’s game against St. Francis on Saturday. He will miss the Yellow Jackets’ game with Winston-Salem State on Wednesday.

Peacock suffered the injury when he dove for a loose ball and his cheek hit teammate Paco Diaw’s knee. Peacock is averaging 7.0 points and 3.2 rebounds per game.

Mike Waters covers Syracuse basketball for the Syracuse Post-Standard

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