Analysis: Three takeaways from men’s basketball’s last three contests
Eagles show resilience and grit in each game they play but have shortcomings ahead of the tournament
After a 27-day layoff from any in-game competition, the American University men’s basketball team (2-5) took the floor in Bender Arena Saturday afternoon against Navy (13-2, 10-1), beginning a two-game series against one of the best teams in the Patriot League. That layoff included a 10-day shutdown due to an increase in the department’s positivity rate.
The Eagles fought valiantly in both games over the weekend and in Wednesday’s game against Loyola (4-8), but ultimately fell short in all three contests by a combined 32 points. After the three contests, here are three takeaways from their performances against Loyola and Navy.
Takeaway 1: Freshman players have been playing with poise and making an impact
AU’s weekend rotations looked drastically different than they did in January. The team was without two of its key scorers in senior guard Stacy Beckton Jr. and freshman standout forward Johnny O’ Neil, who missed time with a sprained right ankle and a COVID-19 protocol violation, respectively.
That left more live-ball minutes to spread out to the younger players on the roster. AU head coach Mike Brennan reiterated the need to give his underclassmen more important time on the court.
“Everybody got many more minutes and many more opportunities, and I like a lot of the things they did,” Brennan said. “Normally some guys wouldn’t have played not nearly as many minutes as they did. So they got their opportunities and you go through practice and you say all the things as to how they can get better and what they need to do but it doesn’t quite resonate like games.”
Live in-game experience is everything to a young athlete, as the adjustment from high school basketball to Division I hoops is a difficult one to make. One of the most important things for a young student-athlete is consistent exposure, helping them develop comfort and confidence in themselves and their abilities.
AU has six freshmen on its active roster this season. They’ve had the chance to shine. Out of those six freshmen, guards Colin Smalls and Chris Gleaton, as well as forward Matt Rogers, all saw a significant increase in playing time due to the short-handed AU roster.
“I think they did great,” senior guard Jamir Harris said. “Colin Smalls and Matt Rogers and all the other freshmen too, like Lorenzo Donadio … all the young guys, they are doing great. Their willingness to learn is definitely there. In practice they go hard, you know, they try and pay attention to every detail, listen to everything I’m telling them as well as the coaches.”
If the entire freshman class finds their footing the way Harris said Smalls and Rogers already have, it’s not hard to envision a bright future for the Eagles after this season. AU has young athletes who have already developed such a strong mental approach to the game.
Takeaway 2: Long layoff looked to affect the Eagles play on both ends
As one could imagine, AU’s long layoff didn’t maintain the momentum it built before the shutdown. Before the pause, AU was on a two-game win streak after sweeping a series against the Loyola Greyhounds, which included a triple-overtime thriller on Jan. 24. After that, AU had three games postponed and four games rescheduled.
AU began both games aggressively on both ends of the floor, finding offense against a tough, gritty Navy defense. In the first game of the series, the Eagles were winning at the end of the first half with the help of an unanswered 8-0 run and finished with a 34-28 lead. In the second half, however, Navy had a 20-0 run, creating too large a margin for AU to overcome and resulting in a 72-60 Navy win.
In the second game, AU started strong again working their way up to a seven-point lead with 10:56 seconds left in the first half. While this was the most dominant AU looked all game, it would burn out after an 18-0 Navy run closed out the first half. Navy won 69-60.
On Wednesday night’s game, AU saw the return of its previously inactive players to the rotation after they missed the Navy series over the past weekend. Those returns helped the Eagles keep up in a competitive first half which ended in a 27-27 tie, but 6-0 and 8-0 Loyola’s runs toward the start of the second half were too large of a deficit for the Eagles to overcome.
In each of the first two games, AU looked like a team that was still finding its rhythm on the court. With just one weekend series left in the regular season, AU has to find its footing fast before the Patriot League Tournament.
Even under the tumultuous circumstances, AU’s effort was never an issue.
“The team is resilient,” Brennan said. “They listen, they’re coachable, they’re tough, they work hard, you know it’s just a matter of us having the opportunity to be in the gym and practice and work.”
Due to the quarantine, the team wasn’t able to be in the gym for an extended period of time, a steep obstacle when trying to prepare for an opponent.
“These layoffs are hard,” Brennan said. “College basketball is hard enough, but with long layoffs and lack of time to prepare it just makes it hard.”
As the Eagles look to put these losses in the rearview mirror, there is still a fire in their playoff hunt. With due time and a consistent practice schedule, AU should return to its pre-shutdown level.
Takeaway 3: Turnovers hurt the Eagles’ overall ability to keep any built momentum
AU started all three games over the stretch with poise. It took good shots, moved the ball well and played good transition defense when it had to. The only thing that hurt the Eagles’ momentum during these games was the number of turnovers they committed, which turned into easy points for their opponents.
This was evident in the Navy series. In the first game, AU turned the ball over 10 times in the first half and three times in the second, which resulted in 19 Navy points. In the following game, it was more of the same, as the Eagles turned the ball over 12 times in the first half and five times in the second half. Once again, these turnovers came with a price tag, as Navy converted these miscues to 28 points.
Against Loyola, the Eagles got off to their best of the stretch, but 12 second-half turnovers sunk them again.
“I don’t really think there is one thing that is the reason for the turnovers other than just being strong with the ball and taking care of it,” Harris said. “I don’t think they were doing anything other than denying a lot of our stuff and things like that but that still shouldn't show how solid we are with the ball in our hand and with the possession so moving forward we just have to focus on that even more.”
Harris also said that preventing turnovers has been a pregame focus of the team this year and that the team has to keep “preaching and emphasizing” good ball-handling and minimizing the total number of turnovers.
“A combination of everything,” Brennan said of the reasoning behind the team’s turnover troubles. “You know, the way we play, I want everyone to be involved and do everything. It’s not like we have the point guard whose in charge of the ball and all the turnovers are his and all the assists are his. Everybody handles the ball and everyone makes decisions so you know each guy has to just continue to get better.”
Overall, these turnover numbers need to decrease if AU wants to sustain any significant momentum to close out a game. But the team has the right mindset. They’re practicing and making it a top priority.