Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Column: Men’s basketball didn’t fail, but they didn’t pass either

The Eagles have the potential to be a big name in the Patriot League later this season

Column: Men’s basketball didn’t fail, but they didn’t pass either

Sophomore Stacy Beckton Jr. dunks the ball in a Nov. 16, 2018 game against University of New Hampshire.

Last season, it made sense that AU lost a majority of its close games. When a team lacks depth the way AU did, it’s difficult to play hard for all 40, and giving inexperienced players a lion’s share of the minutes means that the mistakes will add up. So going into their Nov. 30 game, a healthy, streaking AU had reasons to be confident against a 2-4 Wagner team they had lost to last year by just one point.

But the results told a different story.

This year, there can be no excuses for losing a game like this. While AU certainly could have defended better in the clutch or committed fewer fouls, I wouldn’t point to either of these as a reason for the loss. Instead, there are schematic changes the team should look to make going forward. In order to unlock their offense, the Eagles must start moving the ball more. After the game, head coach Mike Brennan noted some possible adjustments.

“We’re working on just trusting each other for longer periods of time… especially against a defensive team like [Wagner],” Brennan said. “You have to make the defense work.”

Despite Nelson being the only Eagle to average over two dimes a game, there are a number of players that can make plays within Brennan’s system. Marvin Bragg isn’t flashy but is still a solid passer, and Yilret Yiljep [YY] and Sam Iorio both provide valuable playmaking as wings. And while Mark Gasperini has to cut down on his turnovers (he had three turnovers and zero assists against the Seahawks), he has shown his potential as a secondary playmaker in flashes.

It’s not as if AU doesn’t have guys that can pass, but the team isn’t looking to make the extra pass and lack sets that create opportunities for good looks. The Eagles too often look to isolate when they should try to generate open looks from off-ball action. AU is active off the ball, but that action is too often a decoy for teams to bite. Moving the ball around more will add more unpredictability to the offense.

There were several plays early on in the matchup that are encouraging for the team moving forward. On the first basket of the game, AU was able to find Iorio for a wide open three. While the assist was logged to Nelson, it's the action between YY and Gasperini that really needs to be observed; if they keep that momentum in the future, the team could unlock major offense.

Here, Gasperini is quickly doubled in the post. Recognizing this, YY moves over to the corner to draw both his primary defender and one of Gasperini’s men to try to trap him. YY, able to see over the defensive pressure, makes a phenomenal pass to the left wing for Nelson. The important and difficult work is done — Nelson is able to hit either open player, and settles on the more open Iorio for the three-pointer.

Integrating more inside-out passing where the offense is initiated by a big or wing opens up several things for AU’s offense. Primarily, it can get more open shots for volume shooters, as it does for Iorio in the clip above. Additionally, when teams respect Gasperini or YY’s playmaking out of the post, it creates easier opportunities for them to score with fewer double teams.

Increased playmaking also allows the offense to create more easy looks inside. If perimeter players recognize a double early, there is more opportunity for quicker players like Nelson or Bragg to move cut backdoor. AU’s easiest look of the night came on a play just like this:

While the Eagles may feel disappointed after their six-point defeat, there is still plenty to be happy about. It’s easy to forget that this team has only played six games together, and has vastly more talent than last years team. AU didn’t get their fourth win until Jan. 11 last season. Major players like Gasperini and YY didn’t even play last year, so it would make sense the players are still developing trust with one another. By making tweaks to their offensive approach, AU has the potential to make a statement in the Patriot League.

snusbaum@theeagleonline.com


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