Back in November, Boston University (BU) was picked as the top team in the Patriot League conference. They went on to win 25 games, including a division best 15 victories, fulfilling their promise throughout the regular season. But the American Eagles hung close, finishing second to Boston, and arriving at a matchup in the conference championship game. Initially picked to finish ninth out of ten teams in the Patriot League, American rode a smothering defense to 20 wins and a victory over BU in the conference finals. American University is already a Cinderella story, and the NCAA Tournament has not yet begun.
Boston came in to the conference championship game averaging 72 points per game, but the Eagles held them to half of that in their victory. That defense was their signature under head coach Mike Brennan, who in his first year completely turned American around. Last year’s squad allowed almost 64 points per game while scoring only 58. This year those numbers have been flipped, with the Eagles defense only allowing around 58 points per game, and their offense scoring 64. That adds up to the team being an incredible 12 points per game better overall.
Aside from their coach, the American Eagles roster from the previous season has turned over dramatically. They only returned seven players from 2012-2013, bringing in six freshmen and two transfers. One of those transfers, 5’9″ Darius Gardner who came over from Stephen F. Austin, has averaged over 11 points per game and more than 4 assists per game. He’s added some of the offense they sorely lacked last season.
The main way the Eagles have improved is through increased efficiency in many areas. Their defensive swing is apparent, but they have also made great strides in shooting and passing the ball. During the 2012-2013 season, the American Eagles were among the worst teams in the entire country on two-point shots, overall field goal percentage, and they had more turnovers than assists. This year, they rose to the eighth-best team on twos, improved their three-point shooting, and were eighth-best in overall field goal percentage. A lot of that can be attributed to better passing. American had 136 more assists this season than last. Better ball movement typically leads to better shots, which leads to a more efficient offense.
With only two seniors on the entire roster, only one of whom has actually played any significant time–center and leading scorer Tony Wroblicky–American is a very raw team. Even Mike Brennan is only in his first year as a head coach. That the team has been this good this season after starting 3-7 speaks volumes of their determination and ability to improve quickly. They had to gel fast, and have been on quite a run since New Year’s day. Look for them to not only make a splash in the tournament, but to hang around next season. Think Wichita State circa 2012, who made the tournament, followed it up in 2013 with a run to the Final Four as a 9-seed, and this season have entered the bracket undefeated and as the number two team in the entire country. American doesn’t have the same pure talent, but they could follow a trajectory of improvement in the same way.
With all of the changes there was absolutely no way anyone could have predicted such a quick ascension. Their Cinderella story is already written; just being able to play in the NCAA tournament is something that was out of the realm of possibility for them a few months ago. They are a team who had no expectations and no pressure, and that could help them continue their run of success into the NCAA Tournament.
Commentary by Brian Moore