BOSTON – Maybe it’s a good thing that American had a lot of newness to their personnel this season. Last season’s team wasn’t very good, but besides that, a coaching change always brings a requisite adjustment period unless it’s someone who’s just like the departed coach. The transition wasn’t always smooth, but the end result is what the Eagles want as their 55-36 win at Boston University will send them to the NCAA Tournament.
Jeff Jones, who took the school to the NCAA Tournament two years in a row, left for Old Dominion after last season. Mike Brennan, a former Georgetown assistant, replaced him and brought in a whole new staff. The Eagles went 10-20 last year and returned just two starters, with the departures hitting the perimeter hard. They were going to need newcomers to play a key role, especially at the crucial point guard spot. That and the coaching change were all reasons no one had this team winning it all back in October.
“We knew coming in that we should have been picked ninth,” said point guard Darius Gardner, who took home tournament MVP honors after scoring a game-high 18 points on 7-9 shooting. “The year before wasn’t AU standards.”
There’s certainly truth to that, as American has quietly been one of the steadier programs in the league. They consistently finish in the top half of the league and made two straight NCAA Tournament trips under Jones. They aren’t what Holy Cross or Bucknell was to the league a decade ago, but they’re not light years away from it.
The big reason this team is heading to the Big Dance is the offense. The Eagles have been a fine defensive team all year, and that was certainly true on Wednesday night although Boston University had something to do with their 30.8 shooting percentage. But it’s at the offensive end where the Eagles have been amazingly consistent. They have run the Princeton offense exceptionally well all season long, and have reaped the benefits of it. In addition, the leadership, in particular that of Gardner and John Schoof, was a key.
“To have that type of leadership, it’s rare,” said Brennan. “For a first-year coach to have a group like this, it’s the only way we could have been here is the effort and leadership we got from the group as a whole.”
The Eagles bought into the offensive system quickly and without much resistance. That doesn’t mean there weren’t growing pains, as they struggled in non-league play. While the slate was road-heavy, they started the season losing four of five, then lost three straight in December. The offense seemed to really come alive after they had a west coast swing, although that wasn’t all, and the result was an 11-game winning streak that included a 10-0 start to Patriot League play.
“After Christmas break, when we came back from California, the game after that, we kind of started to gel, started picking up our defense,” said Gardner, a transfer from Stephen F. Austin.
American is in the top ten nationally in field goal percentage. They have shot 50 percent or better in 15 of their 32 games. Even when they don’t get a good shot or drive, they have big man Tony Wroblicky to get shots inside with an array of post moves, and even more so when up against a team like Boston University that didn’t have anyone who could match up with him height-wise as he could just shoot right over his man.
Even with that, the defense can’t be left out. Wroblicky was a major presence inside, making it such that opponents ventured inside at their own risk. Opponents have shot below 42 percent against them on the season.
“Just like everyone talks about our offense, our defense is as important and we spend as much time on it,” said Brennan. “It’s as synchronized, you might say, as our offense, in how we rely on each other.”
In February when the Eagles lost in Boston, they didn’t look good. They looked like they might be wearing down, having lost four of five at that point, and Brennan admitted as much. But the staff never wavered in their feeling about the team or how they were playing, including the short numbers as they basically used six players for major minutes all year. They also knew that in the tournament, there are days off in between games so a lack of depth doesn’t hurt as much as it does when the games come on consecutive days as in some tournaments. They regrouped, losing only to Bucknell the rest of the way, and at the time no one in the league was hotter than the Bison.
The Eagles had a clean slate to start the season, and ultimately that is probably for the better. It’s not the tried-and-true formula for a league championship, but the players made it happen.