Breaking down AU’s Turnaround
Basketball analyst Austin Sternlicht explains the factors behind AU’s four-game hot streak
After the first month of conference play, the AU men’s basketball team could not have looked any worse. The Eagles went 0-6 with an average margin of defeat of 15 points. However, this young team has come together over the past week and a half, putting together four straight wins. After three straight road wins against Lafayette, Navy and Colgate, the Eagles returned home and defeated Holy Cross 58-45 on Monday night. After sitting in dead last in the conference for more than a month, the Eagles have now climbed up to seventh place and are just two games out of third place. So what has been the reason for this turnaround? Here are some of the biggest reasons AU has been able to salvage their season and push themselves into Patriot League contention.
A new center of attention
Junior Paris Maragkos has started every game this season, and while he is a very good low post player, Maragkos has struggled with passing and playing defense. Seeking a change, head coach Mike Brennan has given an increasingly larger role to freshman forward Andrija Matic. After being incredibly hesitant the first part of the season, Matic has come on late and shown his assertiveness. Against Holy Cross, Matic scored a career-high 11 points including three consecutive baskets early in the second half to bolster AU’s lead to 28-18. Against Navy, Matic only scored four points, but all four came on late free throws to help secure AU’s victory. He also had a career-high four assists and a key block late against Navy senior center Will Kelly to help AU maintain it’s late lead over the midshipmen. Matic’s consistent play has been a major asset to AU, as he is a true big man who excels on both offense and defense.
Free throw shooting
One major reason AU’s has been able to sustain it’s late leads is due to consistent free throw shooting. Over the past four games, the Eagles have gone 61-73 (84%) at the foul line. More importantly however, the Eagles are hitting their free throws at the end of games when it matters most. Against Holy Cross in the final two minutes, AU went 9-10 from the foul line. In the final 28 seconds against Navy up by just four, the Eagles went 7-8 from the line to secure a 63-58 win. The best performance came against Lafayette when they hit twelve straight foul shots in the final 1:12 clinching an 81-73 victory.
The Re-establishment of veteran role players
It’s not rocket science. When the better players play more often, you are more likely to win. This can be seen with AU as Brennan has now gone back to two of his established veterans in junior Charlie Jones and senior Marko Vasic. Brennan has stated numerous times that he knows what he will get out of the two athletes and wanted to give more time to younger players in order to prepare them for league play. After averaging just nine minutes a game in the four contests before the winning streak, Jones has now played a least 20 minutes each of the past four games. The same can be said for Vasic. The last four games, Vasic tallied 139 minutes. The four games before that, Vasic recorded just 83. While these two veteran wings don’t provide immediate offense, their defense/rebounding has been incredible and their on-court leadership has shown.
A Relaxed Jesse Reed
Jesse Reed’s season can be viewed as a microcosm for AU’s season as a whole. At first, the senior and two-time Patriot League Scholar Athlete of the Year struggled to mesh with his teammates and recorded some of the lowest-scoring games of his career. However, as the season has progressed, Reed has returned to the court looking like the preseason first team all Patriot League player he was selected to be. During the team’s current winning streak, Reed has averaged 17.5 points shooting 55 percent from the floor and is a perfect 18-18 from the foul line. The senior has looked and played more relaxed with every game. As the leader of this team, Reed’s play will determine how far AU can go and whether or not this team is for real in the Patriot League.
The all-around improvement of Delante Jones
From day one, freshman Delante Jones showed he could put the ball in the net. However, Jones struggled in other aspects of the game including defense and controlling the ball. Following his one-game suspension for violating team rules, Jones’ all-around game has improved drastically. He matched his career high of 23 points in back-to-back games against Lafayette and Navy. Against the Midshipmen, he also added four rebounds, two assists and two steals. Jones ranks second on the team in scoring, rebounds, assists and third in steals. While Reed remains the main option, Jones ranks not far behind in terms of his importance to the team’s offense. His ability to shoot and attack the rim will come in handy, and he should be AU’s leading scorer for the next few years.