BALTIMORE – The way Chris Fouch headed to the bench said it all. It wasn’t the way a guy who scores 30 points in a tremendous effort normally would.
This wasn’t how the season was supposed to end for Drexel. Not in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament with a senior-driven team. Not with a 90-81 loss that didn’t feel that close and where there was a good stretch the team looked out-classed. Not in a game where the opponent set a season high for points in a game, and it wasn’t an overtime game. Not in a game where the Dragons scored 60 points in the second half, but allowed the opponent to shoot 65 percent.
And certainly not for the second year in a row.
In truth, no one would have figured before each of the past two seasons that the Dragons would be lower than a No. 2 seed (they were No. 5 last year and No. 4 this time around) to begin with. Perhaps the best way to sum it up is that these two seasons are a testament to what injuries can do to a team. When looking for explanations for the Dragons’ results being below expectations, that’s the place to start.
Drexel was picked to either win or be right there two years in a row. It was understandable; they had a couple of the best players in the conference on the perimeter in Frantz Massenat and Damion Lee, for starters. Both teams had Chris Fouch, a proven scorer, although this year’s team wasn’t supposed to (we’ll get to that shortly). Both teams had some good experience up front. In fact, after two years ago the Dragons looked primed to rule the conference for a couple of years, and that was true even if George Mason, Old Dominion and VCU didn’t leave the conference.
Last year, two-thirds of the backcourt got hurt early. Fouch broke his ankle three games into the season and ultimately got another year of eligibility, while Lee suffered a concussion and later other injuries. Lee didn’t miss much time, but he had a very uneven season as the early injuries set a tone. This year, Lee suffered a torn ACL against Arizona in the NIT Season Tip-Off, while Kazembe Abif had to miss much of the season with a broken wrist and a couple of others missed some time.
It was easy to think that when Drexel fell to VCU in the championship game two years ago, they would be back, that it would not be the last chance for this core. But every season is different, and championship windows always close faster than anyone thinks they will. Coaches understand the urgency, while 18- to 22-year-old players don’t always understand it. This isn’t something you can chalk up to that, though. Drexel would have been a very different team last season and this one if they were as healthy as they were two seasons ago, when injuries never entered the picture.
With the Dragons’ two seasons around the middle of the CAA now in the rearview mirror, it’s easy to think of what could have been. It’s easy to call this team an underachiever and even wonder about just how big a missed opportunity this might be. The Dragons have certainly had great years since moving to the CAA, but a championship has been elusive. Bruiser Flint has had a good run there with five NIT appearances, and the Dragons were famously left out of the NCAA Tournament in 2007 and had a chance again two years ago but didn’t make it. So it’s not like there hasn’t been some success.
A couple of minutes before the game was over, it looked like Fouch would have an unceremonious exit when he was shaken up. Going for a long pass, he and Northeastern’s Zach Stahl collided, with Stahl’s knee catching Fouch in the rib cage. He was on the floor in clear pain for a while, and the place was silent. Anyone who knew his injury history had to hope he was all right and also feel for the young man. In fact, while some in the crowd eventually became restless as no trainer went out there (players waived him away), there’s part of you that wanted to let him be there as long as he wanted to. The Dragons were pretty much out of the game at that point, his long and distinguished career was about to come to a close despite a stellar effort (26 of his 30 points came in the second half to try to rally the Dragons) and he had been shaken up. He’s a good young man. He deserved to have a moment there.
What lies ahead is tough to figure. Drexel will have Lee back next year, and he’ll be one of the CAA’s best players. Abif should help anchor the post along with Rodney Williams, who showed potential in his freshman season. Tavon Allen has shown flashes during his career, as has former travel teammate Freddie Wilson. Flint’s teams will always guard you and make you earn everything you get. The cupboard won’t be entirely bare, but they don’t look like they did the past two years.
It wasn’t the ending anyone expected for this team. All you had to do to know that was see Fouch as he went to the bench for the last time as a college player.