Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Sa’eed Nelson returns for highly-anticipated sophomore season

Nelson likely to shoulder heavy burden with nine new faces on team

Sa’eed Nelson returns for highly-anticipated sophomore season

Nelson is one of four returning players to have logged significant minutes from the 2016 team.

Sophomore point guard Sa’eed Nelson had a lot of responsibility as a first-year player last season for the men’s basketball team. Nelson consistently led the team in almost all statistical categories every game, and quickly emerged as a leader.

And as the 2017 season kicks into full gear, Nelson remains one of the few holdovers from an Eagles team that looks much different than the one that took the court 12 months ago. He’s likely to bear even more responsibility as a sophomore.

Nelson ranked highly in the NCAA in many statistical categories last season, including averaging the third most minutes per game (37.5) in the nation. As a true freshman, Nelson started all 30 games at point guard and led the Eagles in scoring with 14.9 points per game.

At the end of the season, Nelson earned a spot on the Patriot League All-Rookie Team for his performance in his first collegiate season. However, the amount of time spent on the court combined with leading the team took a toll on Nelson, he said.

“Freshman year was definitely different from high school. The change of speed of the game is different, practicing longer, and lifting in general. We didn’t do that in high school,” Nelson said. “It was just a rough season, a long season. It was different for my experience and a new type of feel.”

Despite Nelson’s breakout statistical season, AU struggled collectively. The team lost senior center Leon Tolksdorf to a knee injury early in the season, limiting the team’s frontcourt depth. Injuries forced 6-5 senior Charlie Jones to play center for long durations during the season and AU ranked 346th out 351 Division I schools in points scored per game.

Nelson and freshman Mark Gasperini were both bright spots for Brennan, whose team finished with an 8-22 record and ninth out of ten teams in the Patriot League. AU isn’t predicted to do much better this season -- the Patriot League preseason poll, which surveys the conference’s head coaches and sports information directors, predicted that the Eagles will finish ninth again, coming out ahead of last place Lafayette.

Despite the challenges facing the team, Nelson is looking to build and learn from the lessons of his freshman year and help the Eagles achieve more success in the 2017-18 season.

“This season, we’re more prepared for it,” Nelson said. “We’ve got a lot of new guys, new faces, freshmen on the team. I think they are ready for it [the season]. So I think it will be a good season.”

Nelson, Gasperini, junior forward Matt Cimino and junior guard James Washington are the only returning players who played a significant role in the 2016 season. Delante Jones, Lonnie Rivera, Andrija Matic and Alex Paquin all transferred from the program in the offseason, leaving the Eagles roster bare heading into the summer months. Brennan’s team will feature seven freshmen and is one of four teams in Division I basketball without a senior on its roster.

Nelson knows, even as a sophomore, that he will be expected to serve as a leader for the younger players on the team. Freshmen Jesse Little, Sam Iorio, Drew Lamont and junior transfer Cheikh Diallo will all be in a similar position to Nelson a season ago and expected to contribute heavily in their first season with the Eagles.

While he acknowledges how unusual it is for a team to have so many young players on the roster, Nelson is excited for what the new faces can offer for the Eagles in the season ahead.

“It was a little different [to have so many new players]. It was still refreshing, with them coming into their freshman year, they’re going through what we went through,” Nelson said. “I’m glad we got this new bunch, they’re really good as a group.”

Based on Nelson’s performance as a freshman, Brennan has a higher set of expectations for his point guard. He is looking for Nelson to serve as a resource for the younger players and lead by example on the court.

“I tell him [Nelson] all the time that I don’t view him as a sophomore. You know, he’s experienced enough, where he should be like an upperclass-type leader,” Brennan said. “He’s been doing a good job with that, helping young guys with the offense and through practice.”

Brennan hopes Nelson can help the new players by offering his knowledge, having gone through similar experiences less than a year ago. This leadership will prove crucial, as the inexperience on the Eagles roster likely means several freshmen will play a meaningful role for the team this season.

“I think they will all contribute at some point, so it’s just a matter of everyone continuing to improve each day,” Brennan said. “You know, they won’t know when their time is coming, but when it comes, I know they will be ready.”

Despite the high expectations for his sophomore season, Nelson said he is ready to get out on the court and do what comes most naturally to him: playing the game he loves.

“I haven’t played since the last game of last season. I just want to get out there and play again and travel again,” Nelson said. “It’s exciting to me to travel and play games in new places.”

This article originally appeared in December 2017 print edition of The Eagle.

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