Breaking down AU’s Non-Conference Schedule
Eagle basketball analyst Austin Sternlicht looks at men’s basketball early season matchups
On Sept., 15, the AU men’s basketball team officially released its schedule for the upcoming season.
AU will play three teams that reached the Sweet Sixteen this past March, highlighted by the defending champion Villanova Wildcats. The Eagles also play four more teams that qualified for postseason play. While facing a group of challenging teams, the Eagles have balanced their schedule with six non-conference home games. To put that in perspective, the Eagles have had just eight non-conference home games each of the past three years combined. Here’s an in-depth look at each of the Eagles’ 11 opponents before they kick off conference play.
Friday November 11th at Maryland
2015-16 Record: 27-9 (12-6 Atlantic Coast Conference)
Heading into the 2015-16 season, Maryland was touted as one of the most talented teams in the nation. After getting off to an impressive 15-1 start, the Terrapins stumbled into the tournament with a 10-7 record their final 17 games. As a four seed in the big dance, Maryland was able to get to the Sweet Sixteen by beating South Dakota State in the first round and Hawaii in the round of 32 before losing to Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen. But even with a Sweet Sixteen appearance, it felt like this roster loaded with NBA potential underachieved. While the Terrapins have lost four starters from last season, they return star point guard Melo Trimble, who opted to come back for his junior season in hopes of bolstering his NBA stock. Trimble along with junior Jared Nickens and senior Demonte Dodd should provide a fun but challenging opener for AU.
Monday November 14th at Texas A&M
2015-16 Record: 28-9 (13-5 Southeastern Conference)
Texas A&M won the 2015-16 SEC regular season title before losing to Kentucky in the SEC championship game. A three seed in the NCAA tournament, the Aggies rolled over Green Bay in their first round matchup and completed a comeback for the ages against Northern Iowa in the round of 32, winning in double overtime after being down by 10 with less than 30 seconds in regulation. The Aggies were sent home in the Sweet Sixteen by Wooden Award winner Buddy Hield and the Oklahoma Sooners. Like Maryland, the Aggies only return one starter from last year, sophomore center Tyler Davis. At 6’10” and 265 pounds, Davis will be a force down low that should give the Eagles fits. While not as talented as last year, the Aggies are still a respectable foe and have a one of the best atmospheres in college basketball and should give the Eagles another tough test to start the season.
Thursday November 17th at Akron
2015-16 Record: 26-9 (13-5 Mid-American Conference)
While not in a major conference, the Zips will be another challenging foe for the Eagles. Akron won the 2015-16 MAC regular season title before being upset by Buffalo in the tournament championship game. Akron went on to play in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) and lost in the first round to Ohio State. The Zips return four starters from last year, including its two leading scorers, senior center Isaiah Johnson and junior guard Antonio Jackson. Also of note: the Zips are coached by Keith Dambrot, who coached LeBron James while he was in high school at St. Vincent-St. Maryl.
Tuesday November 22nd Vs. Wagner
2015-16 Record: 23-11 (13-5 Northeast Conference)
The Eagles home opener comes against another team that won their conference regular season title last year. After falling to Farleigh Dickinson in the NEC Championship game, Wager upset top seeded St. Bonaventure in the NIT. The Seahawks ultimately fell to Creighton in the second round. Wagner played American last year in Staten Island, beating the Eagles 55-48. The Seahawks return three starters, including junior guard Corey Henson, the team’s leader in scoring and assists from 2015-16. Wagner will be one of the top teams in the NEC this year and should give a great home opening game for the Eagles. However, the home opener is the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the last day of classes before the break and a common day for AU students to return home for the holidays.
Saturday November 26th Vs. St. Francis (PA)
2015-16 Record: 13-17 (9-9 Northeast Conference)
The Eagles come back from Thanksgiving facing a familiar foe: the St. Francis Red Flash. Last season, the Red Flash walloped the Eagles in Loretto, Pennsylvania with a 68-48 win, the first of four straight losses to start the season for AU. St. Francis figure to be a weaker outfit in 2016-17 without their three leading scorers from last season. The Red Flash will have to rely heavily on their backcourt of Isaiah Blackmon and Malik Harmon if they want to have any success this season.
Tuesday November 29 Vs. Western Illinois
2015-16 Record: 10-17 (3-13 Summit)
The Leathernecks season started last season off with a bang beating No. 17 Wisconsin in Madison. After starting the season 5-0, Western Illinois’ season stalled as it lost 13 of its next 15 games, capped off with an 11 game losing streak. The team finished last in the 2015-16 Summit League standings. Western Illinois return leading scorer Garret Covington and Jabari Sandifer, the leader in assists for the Leathernecks from 2015-16.
Saturday December 3 at Howard
2015-16 Record: 12-20 (6-10 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference)
The Eagles face their crosstown rival for the first time since the 2013-14 season. The Bison were a bottom tier team, finishing 9th out of 13 teams in the MEAC. Howard returns their entire team from last season, headed by senior guard James Daniel, who led all of college basketball in scoring with 27.1 points per game. Senior center Marcel Boyd nearly averaged a double-double with 10.4 points and 9.9 rebounds, while senior guard Damon Collins also chipped in 10 points, four rebounds and two assists per contest.
Tuesday December 6 Vs. New Hampshire
2015-16 Record: 20-13 (11-5 American East)
After AU beat New Hampshire in Durham last season, the Eagles welcome the Wildcats to Bender Arena. The Eagles’ huge second half propelled them to a 68-50 win, but it should be noted New Hampshire was without leading scorer Tanner Leissner (15.9 ppg). The junior forward is back this season, as is the team’s next three leading scorers in Jaleen Smith (13.4 ppg) Jacoby Armstrong (11 ppg) and Daniel Dion (9.2 ppg). New Hampshire played in the College Invitational Tournament last March, defeating Fairfield in the first round before falling to Coastal Carolina in the second round. The Wildcats should be one of the top teams in the American East Conference this year and give the Eagles a competitive game.
Saturday December 10 Vs. Youngstown State
2015-16 Record: 11-21 (6-12 Horizon)
Just like New Hampshire, Youngstown State lost at home to the Eagles last season and will visit Washington right before finals week in 2016. The Penguins bring a similar team, with four starters from last years squad. Junior guard Cameron Morse finished second in the Horizon league with 20 points per game last season while fellow junior guard Francisco Santiago finished fourth in the league with 4.3 assists per game. Senior center Jorden Kaufman, 7’0”, will also provide a challenge as the Eagles look to make it two straight wins against the Penguins.
Monday December 19th Vs. Maryland Eastern Shore
2015-16 Record: 10-22 (7-9 MEAC)
On the last day of finals week, the Eagles host UMES for the second straight season. Last year, the Hawks took the Eagles by storm en route to a 79-64 win. UMES graduated their top two scorers from last year in Devin Martin, who lit up the Eagles for 34 points last December, and Dominique Elliott. UMES is one of the weaker teams the Eagles face out of conference.
Wednesday December 21st at Villanova
2015-16 Record: 35-5 (16-2 Big East)
While most AU students will be thinking about Christmas, the Eagles will have to wait until after they play the defending national champions in Philadelphia. Villanova did lose key seniors Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, but the Wildcats return a strong, veteran lineup. Senior Josh Hart is one of the best players in all of college basketball and one of the favorites to win the Wooden Award this season. The team also returns Kris Jenkins, who will go down in history after his game winning three-point shot against North Carolina in the championship game last March. Sophomore guard Jalen Brunson and junior guard Phil Booth will need to make a significant statistical leaps if Villanova wants to defend their title. The Wildcats are arguably the best team AU has faced under head coach Mike Brennan. If the Eagles can stay competitive for at least a part of the game, that would be a major accomplishment in itself.
What would define a successful non-conference schedule?
Since the Patriot League typically sends only one team to the NCAA tournament yearly, the non-conference schedule isn’t all that important in terms of wins and losses. The real goal for a relatively young AU team is to gain an identity and build confidence. One explanation for why the Eagles struggled so much in the beginning of conference play last season was they had little confidence heading into the heart of their schedule. The team was riding a four-game losing streak that would eventually get stretched to ten, and were 2-9 with an average loss margin of 18.5 points. Now a little older, the Eagles need to use conference play to iron out any wrinkles in their game and figure out what lineups work and what don’t, while still winning enough games to keep the morale of the team high. In terms of an actual record, at worst this team should go 4-7. If the Eagles could go either 5-6 or finish above .500 that would be incredibly beneficial to the team’s momentum as they start to play their more important games in conference.