Recruiting the next generation of Eagles
Head coach Mike Brennan and his assistants have worked hard to recruit top flight recruits.
In the last two seasons, the AU men’s basketball team has seen the graduation of three of the best players in team history: Tony Wroblicky, John Schoof and Darius “Pee-Wee” Gardner. At the end of this season, the Eagles will graduate senior guard Jesse Reed, a two-time Patriot League Scholar-Athlete of the Year who has already recorded 1,000 points in his AU career. Head coach Mike Brennan faces the challenge of rebuilding his team every year, and this year, Brennan and his and his team of assistants have brought in several nationally-acclaimed recruits in an effort to continue the team’s success.
Recruiting in a low-major (schools with less scholarship money and smaller arenas) basketball program creates a challenge for the AU coaches. AU, as a whole has a recruiting budget of $125,443 for all male sport teams, as of the 2014- 15 season, while schools like Georgetown University have a budget of $460,058 for all male sports, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Brennan also competes against other Patriot League schools for the same recruits. Two of the four freshman recruits on AU’s roster this season also received scholarship offers from another Patriot League school but chose the Eagles instead.
In addition, Brennan also must recruit athletes willing to adjust to the Princeton offence, one of the most complicated systems in college basketball. He learned this particular offensive style while playing at Princeton under legendary coach Pete Carril, and he has successfully taught his athletes how to play under this style during his first two years at AU.
Although none of the the season’s recruits have had previous experience with this system, they came to AU anyway to learn under Brennan.
“The Princeton offense wasn’t a concern. I heard of Coach Brennan, he’s a great coach, so I knew that if I would be under his wing that eventually I would pick up everything,” freshman forward Lonnie Rivera said.
Delante Jones, another freshman, said he entered AU undeterred by the Princeton offense and looks forward to playing the game in a different way.
“I wouldn’t say I was worried about it [Princeton offense]. I definitely knew I would have to play a different way but even that you could still play the same way just in the workings of the offense," Jones said. "It’s not really different, it’s not restricting, its just a different way of playing basketball."
The Eagles’ freshman roster this year includes two three-star recruits James Washington and Jones and a pair of two-star recruits, Rivera and Andrija Matic, according to online recruiting sources.
Jones is the eighth best player in the state of Virginia according to ESPN. Kevin Brown, a guard who scored 1,000 points in his high school career, also joins the team as a walk-on.
Four freshman recorded minutes in AU’s season-opener against Rhode Island, and Brennan said he will look towards his freshmen to contribute heavily this season. In previous years, Brennan has relied on a core set of players and rarely played his underclassmen, but this year, he said his lineup could change throughout the season.
“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.” Brennan said during media day.
Brennan took over the head coaching position in 2013, after former head coach Jeff Jones left AU for a coaching job at Old Dominion University. In his first year as head coach, Brennan retained most of the recruits already committed under Jones. His most notable contribution involved convincing Charlie Jones, guard from Manchester, Maryland, to join the team as a walk-on. Jones finished last season as a starter and earned a scholarship for the 2015-2016 season.
In his second year, Brennan and his assistant coaches Scott Greenman, Matt Wolff and Nate Philippe recruited Alex Paquin, Gabe Brown, University of Connecticut transfer Leon Tolksdorf and George Washington University transfer Paris Maragkos. However, due to NCAA rules, Tolksdorf and Maragkos could not play last season. Paquin and Brown combined played 93 minutes off the bench last season.
Paquin, who hails from Montreal, said Brennan and then-assistant coach Philippe came to watch him play club basketball before he committed to AU.
“My second year of CEGEP [public post-secondary collegiate institution exclusive to Quebec] I started playing AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] ball, and then Coach Philippe heard about me. Then they came to see me with coach Brennan, they came back [to my] home in Montreal and offered me [a scholarship].” Paquin said “I had some school in the U.S. and almost all the schools in Canada, but the reason I came here mostly was because of the academics.”
The Patriot League prides itself on high academic standards, and last year, AU led the conference with the most number of academic honor roll honorees. Like many in the Patriot League, AU uses their strong academic standing, in addition they utilize Brennan’s coaching reputation and the city of D.C. to attract high caliber talent to the team.
The Eagles, under Brennan, have made an NCAA Tournament appearance, won a Patriot League championship and reached two Patriot League tournament finals. Rivera, a freshman guard from Spring Valley, New York, said Brennan’s tradition of excellence as a coach drew him to the program and factored into his decision to commit to AU.
“The coaching staff made the difference,” Rivera said. “Coach Wolff recruited me hard. Coach Brennan has great credentials, he’s only been coaching for about two years and he’s made it to the championship game twice.”
In addition to Brennan’s history as a coach, Rivera also said that AU location in D.C. convinced him choose the school. DC ranks as one of the most lively metropolitan cities in the country, which helps AU stand out from many of its Patriot League contenders.
“It’s in DC, you know the heart of the country, you know you have a lot to do out here. I love the coaching staff, they’re all really good people.” freshman guard James Washington said. “They want to see me be good, they want to see me be the best I can be.”
Rivera said that he built a relationship with Wolff during the recruiting process, and Brennan credits his assistant coaching staff for helping him secure a strong freshmen class. Assistant coach duties often include phone calls, attending practices and scouting, while the head coach steps in to seal the deal, usually by visiting the athlete in person. For the Eagles, coach Greenman, Wolff, and Philippe (now departed for a head coaching job at University of Quebec at Montreal) have led most recruiting efforts.
“During my recruitment I was traveling with the Puerto Rican national team and he [Wolff] was always keeping track of me, you know, watching my games throughout,” Rivera said. “[It] didn’t matter if it was three in the morning, he would watch the games and always call to check up on me. [He] kept in contact with my mom. [Wolff] showed a lot of love”
An assistant coach must be diligent and committed in the recruiting process as relationships often take over a year to build before a player ultimately signs a letter of intent.
“My recruitment experience was kind of slow going into my junior year, I had [interest from] probably just American, then it kinda picked up.” Washington said “Coach Scott [Greenman] contacted me right after [my] last tournament travel ball season junior year and had contact with him from then until now.”
Jones, a guard from Lynchburg, Virginia agreed that Greenman’s efforts and commitment in the recruiting process helped guide him to AU.
“I’d seem him at least every month,” Jones said.
While AU’s recruiting tactics helped draw top athletes to the team this year, Tolksdorf said Brennan’s coaching style proved to be the ultimate factor in his transfer to AU, and he looks forward to being a part of the program this year.
“First of all I knew coach Brennan’s a great coach,” Tolksdorf said. “Just looking at last year [2013 Patriot League Championship] what they accomplished, they way they play, the way they approach every single game and they way they share the ball and the way they run their offense I think it [is] a system I could fit into pretty good.”