Finally, and perhaps mercifully, the end of Bruiser Flint’s worst season as a college basketball coach is within sight.
But even as the frustration has built with every one of his team’s 24 losses, the longtime Drexel head man isn’t ready for it to end yet.
And, as always, he’s hoping his team can perhaps find a little March magic when the Colonial Athletic Association tournament begins tonight with ninth-seeded Drexel facing eighth-seeded Elon in the opening round at Baltimore’s Royal Farms Arena (6 p.m.).
“The tournament always gives you a chance,” Flint said from his office this week before departing for Baltimore. “That’s one of the things you can always talk about. But in the end, it’s up to the kids. Do y’all want the season to end or do you want to try to continue on? This gives you another chance to do the things you want to do. … A team like ours, who’s had a tough year, you know what, come on man, this is our chance to sorta make history.”
It would certainly be historic if the Dragons were to win the CAA tournament, not only because they’ve never before accomplished such a feat but also because that would mean they’d earn more wins in four days (four) than they’ve had in league play all season (three).
But it’s not completely unrealistic to think Drexel (5-24 overall, 3-15 CAA) could at least go on a run, considering the fact that two of those wins have come in the last 13 days as the Dragons are finally playing better basketball.
Of course, after those two wins, the Dragons closed the regular season with a familiar result, blowing a late 11-point lead in a home loss to Northeastern. According to Flint, losing close games and poor shooting -- the team ranks 335 out of 346 Division I teams in field-goal percentage -- have been problems he just hasn’t been able to figure out.
“That’s hard, man,” Flint said of his team’s 39 percent field-goal percentage, which was even lower before a recent stretch of better offensive performances. “I just think all you’ve got to do is look at the shooting statistics. That’s the bottom line. We won a couple of games at the end of the season because we shot it better. That’s it.”
Tavon Allen is a big reason for Drexel’s improved play, as he's averaging 19.3 points per game over the last four contests after scoring a combined 13 points in the three games before that. On top of the scoring, Flint said the senior swingman has been “more engaged in what we’re doing on both ends of the floor,” which he hopes will continue in the conference tourney.
Allen’s defense will be especially important against an Elon team that beat Drexel twice this season, scoring more than 80 points in both games -- the only conference team to do that against the Dragons.
“We’ve got to stay connected to them,” Allen said of the Phoenix, which averages 9.3 made three-pointers per game. “You can’t give them any type of space or they’re letting it fly.”
Allen, the Dragons’ leading scorer, is naturally excited for the fresh slate that a conference tournament provides, with the league’s automatic NCAA tournament berth going to the winner no matter how poor their regular season. But that’s still not going to make him forget all the hardships the team has endured in 2015-16, including an 11-game losing streak in conference play when it seemed nothing could go right.
“A lot of people were looking at other people like, ‘What’s going on with us? What can we do to fix it?’” Allen said. “It’s just been a struggle all year. But we’ve been trying to stay positive and keep everyone on the same page. Hopefully we can get some wins.”
Drexel isn’t the first team, of course, to struggle through a dismal season. But it still hit the players and Flint hard because they didn’t expect it. In 15 years as head coach, Flint had only had four losing seasons before this one. And this will be the first time he’s gone through back-to-back losing seasons -- an especially tough pill to swallow because it came on the heels of a 2013-14 campaign in which he felt he assembled his most talented team ever only for to see it derailed by injuries.
Flint said the program “hasn’t been the same since” as injuries and bad luck, including star Damion Lee transferring to Louisville last year, have mounted amid questions about the coach’s job security.
“This is unchartered territory for me a little bit,” Flint said. “But you gotta keep on plugging, keep grinding."
Flint is 244-216 as head coach at Drexel, but his Dragons teams have never reached the NCAA Tournament. The closest Drexel has come to making the tournament was when the 2011-2012 CAA regular-season championship team was snubbed after falling to VCU in the conference tournament final.
But since that season, the Dragons have gone 45-75 under Flint's watch.
“Nobody’s come to me and said anything,” he said about the possibility of being fired. “I’ll just keep working until someone says to me, ‘Yo man, you’re not the coach there no more.’ Nobody’s come to me and told me my job’s in jeopardy or anything like that. So every day I try to win some games, keep coming to practice, keep trying to work.”
A deep run in the conference tourney might certainly help Flint make the case that the program is headed in the right direction. And if the Dragons can knock off Elon, they’ll have a big opportunity to upset top-seeded Hofstra in the quarterfinals.
From there, could they win another game to get to the finals? And another game after that to go to the big dance for the first time in Flint’s tenure?
The odds are extremely long but it is March, so why not dream?
“That would be crazy,” Allen said. “We’d have the whole world in shock. But that’s what we’re going for. That’s what we’re hoping for.”