Men’s basketball enters this season with fresh faces but big dreams

With six new freshmen on the roster, the Eagles are looking for a fresh start

Men’s basketball enters this season with fresh faces but big dreams
Jamir Harris (#4) in a game against Loyola on Feb. 12.

Correction: The original subhead for this article incorrectly stated that the team added six new players to the roster. Players has been changed to freshmen.

This season, American University’s men’s basketball team will seek to overcome last year's early exit in the Patriot League Tournament, recuperating from the loss of three crucial players amid an odd, yet necessary, schedule.

Last season, the Eagles were upset in their first Patriot League Tournament game against the Bucknell Bison. AU failed to land its shots against the Bison, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range and 60 percent from the free-throw line. This was the culmination of a season with many ups and downs. Despite earning the second seed with a 12-6 conference record, the Eagles often struggled shooting the ball, especially from long range, where they hit 33 percent of their shots. Without a concerted effort to improve perimeter shooting, this coming season will be especially hard.

The men’s basketball season is set to begin on Jan. 2, when the Eagles head to Baltimore to face the Loyola Greyhounds — the first of six meetings with the team. AU will also play Lehigh, Lafayette and Bucknell twice, and Navy four times. Army, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Colgate are currently not on the schedule. 

Last season, the Eagles split their games against Lehigh, Lafayette and Bucknell, while winning the season series against Navy and Loyola. Bucknell and Loyola are the most dangerous of the Eagles' opponents. Bucknell's long-standing winning culture and its exceptional ability to make plays has repeatedly led to close wins over AU in the past. 

While Loyola lost the season series against AU last year, the Greyhounds boast an impressive frontcourt combination of Golden Dike, a physically-imposing 6-foot-10 sophomore from Spain, and 6-foot-11 Santi Aldama, also a sophomore from Spain, who spaces the floor with excellent shooting at the position. The Eagles would have to contend with that dangerous pairing for six whole games this season with new frontcourt players grabbing minutes.

AU’s biggest question revolves around the replacement of its all-time leading scorer, Sa’eed Nelson, who graduated in May. Head coach Mike Brennan acknowledged that picking up for what Nelson did won’t be on just a single person.

“No one’s going to pick up the slack for what Sa’eed did, but we have to do it collectively,” Brennan said. “I’m not looking for someone to replace what Sa’eed did, but I am looking for our group to collectively replace everything that he did.”

Nelson was not the only player that the Eagles lost, as forwards Mark Gasperini and Yilret Yiljep also graduated last spring, both of whom played major minutes last year. This upcoming season brings with it a group of young talent, as seven of the Eagles’ players are new, six of whom are freshmen. Within this group are two notable players who will likely take on some major minutes: freshman guard Colin Smalls and junior forward Christian Lorng.

Smalls was a key recruit for the Eagles, who hope to have him play a key role at the guard position, envisioning him as one of the main ball-handlers in the future, according to an interview with assistant coach Scott Greenman on the Angle on the Eagles podcast. 

Lorng, who, before his two seasons at Chipola College, was a three-star prospect and the third-ranked prospect in Kentucky. If Lorng plays as well as Brennan expects, he will be a major player in the Eagles’ frontcourt rotation.

Lorng, along with junior forward Josh Alexander, will likely fill Gasperini and Yiljep’s minutes in the frontcourt. While most of the attention has focused on Nelson’s departure from the team, Gasperini and Yiljep were both veterans who played their roles on the team well and knew what Brennan expected from them.

Alexander played sparingly in his first two years, averaging 11 and 12 minutes per game. Now, without Gasperini and Yiljep there to split minutes, Alexander will be expected to shoulder most of the rebounding and rim protection role alongside Lorng. 

While Loyola has big men that can shoot and control the paint, Alexander and Lorng’s ability to hold their own remains to be seen. The transition for Alexander and Lorng, from role player and newcomer to reliable frontcourt players, will have to be a quick one. 

“Luckily, I think we have a core group of guys that have been around that understand not only just our offense and what we do but what is important to our team, to the program, to me,” Brennan said. “Connor Nelson [and] Jamir Harris, these guys have been around, they’re older. So I expect them to sort of lead the way, and it’s a good group.”

One veteran to watch for in particular will be Stacy Beckton Jr. Throughout his first three years in the program, Beckton carved out a role for himself as an incredible athlete and defensive player who showed flashes of potential high-level scoring and creativity on the offensive end. 

With Nelson gone, it is much more likely that the Eagles will use their Princeton offense system to have a balanced scoring attack, and spread more shots around as their way of making up for the lost scoring punch of Nelson. However, if one player could potentially step up and become a new number one option for the team, it seems like Beckton would be the likely choice. 

Harris, a senior guard, is excited for the prospects of the new season and another shot at the Patriot League title.

“It’s another opportunity for us to, you know, cap off on what we couldn’t cap off last year,” Harris said. “And that’s the primary thing on my mind. Just having an opportunity to win the conference tournament.”

Making it to the top of the Patriot League will be a tough one. The two best teams in the conference last year, Colgate and Boston University, are expected to regain their positions at the top of the conference. And while they will not play either team in the regular season, if AU expects to make a run in the conference tournament, matchups with those teams will await them. 

The Eagles' primary goal in the regular season should be to hold off the Bison and Greyhounds, teams that will attempt to leapfrog AU in the standings this year. If they can win, or at least split the regular-season matchups against those teams, the Eagles should put themselves in a position to make a run in the tournament. If not, they could risk not missing the postseason entirely. 

With Harris and Beckton graduating after this season, AU will be a young team next season, comprised of many underclassmen, so if the Eagles want to win their first conference championship since 2014, this year will probably be their best chance to do it.

lclarke@theeagleonline.com, abranch@theeagleonline.com

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