Column: Grading the men’s basketball team’s 2018-2019 season
Eagles made progress this year but need to improve on late-game performance
In its Patriot League quarterfinal game – the team’s biggest game of the year – AU men’s basketball came up decidedly short. The Eagles played in a style that deviated from their norm: jacking up threes, getting exposed by zone defense and refusing to drive to the rim.
The larger narrative, however, was the same as it’s been all year. While AU led for only 25 seconds Thursday, they spent most of the game within six points of Navy. The team couldn’t convert when it counted.
AU struggled to get to the hoop due to Navy’s 3-2 zone defense, in which Navy had two players patrolling the paint and three pushed out on the perimeter. American is not a perimeter-oriented team, and it's clear Navy did their homework coming into the game.
The Eagles took 35 threes on Thursday, the most attempts they’ve taken all year, but were only able to convert on seven, five of which came from Sa’eed Nelson. Players were chucking the ball from deep, but a number of the looks were open – the team just couldn’t convert.
Navy’s Evan Wieck talked after the game about the success of the Midshipmen's zone against the Eagles.
“We played a 2-3 zone, it was really good for us,” Wieck said. “Normally we don’t guard the three as well, but we were guarding it differently with a guy in the high post, which allowed our guards to push out a little bit more, and that’s why their shooting percentage was so low.”
The pressure isn’t going to decrease in the conference tournament next year if that’s what the team is hoping for. Looking ahead, the Eagles have a lot to look forward to going into next year. While they will be losing Larry Motuzis’ 27 minutes per game, the rest of the core will be returning.
Given the improvement of Jacob Boonyasith and Stacy Beckton Jr. from their first game to game 30, the Eagles should expect even bigger roles for the pair next year. As the season went on, the players did look more comfortable playing with one another.
“Despite our record, there’s been a ton of progress, the group has been great,” head coach Mike Brennan said after the game. “It’s early, but I feel good about everybody coming back essentially, the pieces that we’re adding, getting older. If they continue to work the way they have, we should be good next year.”
With a lineup of Nelson, Beckton, Sam Iorio, Mark Gasperini, and either Boonyasith or sophomore transfer Jamir Harris, AU should be able to stretch the floor heading into next season.
It also would not be too surprising to see freshman Josh Alexander work his way into the starting lineup. While he wasn’t much of an outside threat this year, his shot looks clean. I find it unlikely the Eagles would be able to go 5-out next year, but the team has to figure out a way to build lineups that better complement Nelson’s strengths.
The program will need to make Nelson’s senior year count because it’s tough to say when AU will have a player of his caliber in the future. It’s easy to forget after an early tournament defeat, but there are many things for the team to be proud of.
AU won more games this year (15) than in the last two years combined (14). But if the team chooses to run it back without improving upon their late game performance, Brennan’s seat could begin to warm up.