Coming off a season that revealed many highs and lows, AU men’s basketball head coach Mike Brennan sat down in front of microphone on Oct. 29 to face questions from reporters during AU’s annual media day. Brennan and his team also allowed local media members into practice during the event, and players fielded questions about conference opponents, roster adjustments and leadership roles within the team.
At this time last year, the Eagles cruised into their season-opener still riding a wave of success after winning the Patriot League title and earning an NCAA tournament bid. However, in 2014-2015, the team struggled in the league, facing a series of injuries and finishing fifth. In tournament play, players defied seeding and expectations by reaching the Patriot League final but suffered a loss in the championship game at Lafayette that proved a disappointing end to the season.
Now, with its first game fast approaching at the University of Rhode Island on Nov. 13, the team faces several challenges to adapt to a new roster, tougher schedule and rule changes in the months to come.
Here are some of the most important talking points on and off the court.
Reed takes the reigns, but the loss of Gardner and Schoof will hurt - a lot
From Brennan’s opening statement to the player interviews, much of the conversation at media day centered on Brennan’s plans to replace several key cogs in the rotation last year, most notably guards Darius “Pee Wee” Gardner and John Schoof, who graduated after unequivocally leading the team in offensive finesse. Brennan and senior guard Jesse Reed highlighted that returners such as senior forward Marko Vasic, junior swingman Charlie Jones, junior guard Jalen Rhea and Reed himself would be tasked with replacing the production from Gardner and Schoof.
“We're going to miss Pee Wee and Schoof a ton," Brennan said. "Our leadership has been good so far so between Jesse, Marko, Charlie and Jalen. Those are, like, the four guys that are returning that have some experience. I've thought they've been terrific so far. I like our young guys, I like our transfers, so there's going to be a lot of new faces on the court, and I'm excited about the season.”
While Brennan and his players emphasized the team aspect of rebuilding and replacing the graduates, expectations will fall on the shoulders of Reed. With a 14.3 points per game average last season, he led the team in scoring and will be expected to put up more shots this year in order to make up for the loss of Gardner and Schoof, who combined to average another 22 points per game. As the only Eagle picked to the preseason all-Patriot League first team, Reed played down the importance of preseason polls but said he acknowledges the pressure and motivation to live up to what is expected of him from Brennan and the rest of the coaching staff this season.
“Pee Wee and Schoof were really great at a lot of little things that don’t show up in the box score. So if it means I’ll have to take a few more shots a game, I’ll do that,” Reed said. “But if it also means I have to guard their best player and try to lock him in night in and night out, being a senior and a returner, I feel I need to step up and do even more to make up for the loss of those guys.”
Revamped roster brings optimism with change (and also post players)
Last year, on a roster filled with primarily seniors, injured and ineligible players, the Eagles adjusted to a lack of true post players down low. As a result, they often resorted to playing Reed or Vasic, who are only 6’5”, at forward to guard bigger players.
This year’s rotation shows an increase in stature and in depth, as the team adds five freshmen - three of them 6’5” or larger - and another two big men who sat out last year after transferring and redshirting. Brennan highlighted that he expects contributions from junior center Paris Maragkos (a transfer from George Washington University), junior forward Leon Tolksdorf (a transfer from the University of Connecticut) and freshmen forwards Andrija Matic and Lonnie Rivera. Maragkos will be the starting center to begin the season, according to Brennan, and he said he is impressed with the Greek transfer’s progress so far, noting that he is one of the team’s hardest workers. Maragkos’ promotion to starting center stands as just one of the line-up changes that Brennan will make this year, and he said he will look deep into the roster for his key starting five.
“It was easy the last few years. never wanting to take Pee Wee, Schoof or Jesse out. But I expect a lot of people to contribute,” Brennan said. “It’s not exactly as clear who the guys are yet that will help us win. We have a couple scrimmages coming up that will help out.”
Maragkos elaborated and said his year on the practice court last year helped hone his skills, expose him to Brennan’s Princeton offense and ease his transition from the Atlantic 10 conference to the Patriot League.
“I found it very helpful, because you know I had to transition from the way GW was practicing to the AU program, which was very different. I had to work on my body, a lot of things in my game. It was a really important year for me to get me ready,” Maragkos said. “The level of competition from A-10 and this league isn’t that much different, maybe only that here it feels like more of mind games, where the A-10 was a physical league, but basketball is the same and I should be fine.”
Beyond the center position, Brennan faces the challenge of selecting his additional starters. He may stick to a core group of six or seven players, as he did last year, or he could expand and utilize his bench. Early signs, such as Brennan’s comments during media day and his talented freshmen class, suggest that he may rely on a wider range of players to make significant contributions this season. Jalen Rhea, who played in all 26 games last season, said he was pleasantly surprised with his first impressions of the work ethic among newcomers, specifically mentioning Maragkos, Tolksdorf and Matic.
“They’re picking up the offense way faster than I did,” Rhea said. “They’re already contributing, making plays. I think they’ll do fine with coach Brennan, they’re picking it up just fine.”
Tough road schedule and new shot clock pose new challenges
Other than roster and personnel changes, many questions on media day circled around some notable non-conference games and an amendment in the NCAA rules that could specifically impact AU and the style of offense Brennan employs.
Per usual under Brennan, the Eagles will play several away games in November and December before entering Patriot League play on Dec. 30. The team starts the season with a road game against the University of Rhode Island on Nov. 13, a team that has generated significant preseason hype surrounding a potential top-four finish in the Atlantic 10 conference and a qualification for the NCAA tournament. Later in November, AU travels south to Richmond to face Virginia Commonwealth University, a team that has become an NCAA tournament regular. Most notably, AU’s non-conference play wraps up on Dec. 22 at Louisiana State University, an SEC team currently ranked 22nd in the nation and receiving attention after snagging the top recruit in the country over the summer, freshman forward Ben Simmons.
When asked about the schedule Brennan said he hopes the games will prepare his players for the conference games.
“Every year you play a non-conference schedule with some notable games like that, it’s good for recruiting, it’s good for your guys who want to play the best teams in the country and see where you stand,” Brennan said. “But basically you’re just trying to prepare yourself the best you can for Patriot League play.”
Rhea said that he and some of the other players look forward to the non-conference games as a chance to size themselves up against top teams and players.
“Playing against the number one recruit is always in the back of all our minds,” Rhea said.
The Eagles also face the challenge of a decreased shot clock, per a new NCAA rules that lowers the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 seconds. Brennan;s Eagles run a form of the Princeton offense, a strategy which involves calculated ball movement, constant player motion and careful shot selection, often taking up much of the available shot clock. Media members emphasized their concerns about the new rule on AU’s offense, but Brennan and his players insisted that the actual impact will not be as severe as anticipated.
“I thought it would feel a little different having five less seconds when we’re practice defense, but it still seems like two and a half minutes each possession. So the shot clock hasn’t changed much for us,” Brennan said.
Reed also downplayed the effect he’s seen in practice from the new shot clock and said he thinks the change could be more beneficial than harmful in the long run, in terms of how his offense will operate.
“We haven’t really noticed a difference, which is interesting because you’d think it would cause us to speed up to make up for the five seconds,” Reed said. “I personally like it because I think it will make us run up and down the court a little more, maybe get some easy buckets instead constantly working for thirty seconds.But when it comes to it, we’re going to stick to what we really know and I don’t think it will affect us that much.”