Senior Stacy Beckton Jr., a guard for the American University men’s basketball team, is not shy about airing his disappointment in how the 2020-21 season ended.
“Last season was kind of tough from the start,” Beckton said. “It just felt like a lot of things kept happening that kind of put us in a tough mental space.”
The Eagles went 4-6 last season and were blown out in the first round of the Patriot League tournament. Beckton says the lack of a full preseason and the cancellation of so many games, due to the pandemic, affected the team. However, the Eagles are set to begin the 2021-22 season in front of a home crowd at Bender Arena, and it is time to examine how the Eagles will stack up to the competition.
Ninth-year Head Coach Mike Brennan said that the Eagles responded well to adversity the pandemic put the Eagles through.
“I thought our guys did a terrific job with so many unknowns starting from the very beginning with the delayed arrival to camp,” Brennan said. “When they had an opportunity to practice, work and get better they took advantage of that.”
Despite the adversity, Beckton said that the team pulled through and stayed cohesive as a unit. As one of the oldest members of this year’s squad, it will be up to him to help guide the Eagles to a winning campaign.
The team Beckton will be a part of is relatively similar to last year’s unit.
Strengths: Cohesion, youth, size, defense and first-half offense
The Eagles have a team filled with veteran experience and young talent. Four of AU’s top five minutes per game players returned this year, and the Eagles will be led by seniors Beckton, Connor Nelson, Josh Alexander and graduate student Marvin Bragg.
The veterans will be joined by several players who had breakout seasons last year and a new freshman class that will help bolster the lineup. Sophomore Johnny O’Neil was the standout freshman for the Eagles in 2020-21. The Florida native was named PL Rookie of the Year, was third on the team in scoring, second in rebound and blocks. In addition to O’Neil, junior Ben Lubarsky started all ten games, sophomores Matt Rogers, Colin Smalls — who was hurt early in the season — and Lorenzo Donadio both saw playing time as freshmen. Beckton said that playing time Rogers, Smalls and Donadio received in 2021 will give them a leg up on the competition.
“I think those guys are going to gain that learning curve quickly,” Beckton said.
Brennan also said he was impressed with the sophomores’ play in 2020-21.
“I thought they all played well,” Brennan said. “I think all of these guys will be able to contribute.”
The true strength of the team, however, will lie in its frontcourt led by Alexander.
Alexander, who had a breakout 2020-21 campaign and finished the shortened season averaging 9.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and just over a block per game, will be part of a frontcourt that squashed the competition in 2021. Along with O’Neil, Rodgers and 6’9 senior Christian Lorng, who Brennan said played hurt all year last season, the Eagles led the PL in blocked shots per game. Alexander and O’Neil led the blocking brigade — the pair combining for over half of the team’s blocks — and the Eagles finished the 2020-21 season fourth of ten in points allowed per game and second in three-point percentage allowed.
AU’s first-half offense and defense have been a strength the last few years. An Eagle data analysis of the last three seasons found that AU outscored its opponents 34 to 31. While AU was in the bottom half of the PL in average points scored per game and fifth of ten in field goal percentage in 2021, the Eagles had four of the top 30 PL leading scorers last season. However, scoring, in general, was a problem for the Eagles last season, and the offseason has only made the problem more acute.
Weaknesses: The departure of Jamir Harris, second-half offense, rebounding and turnovers
Before he graduated, Jamir Harris was the lifeblood of the Eagles in 2021. The successor to AU’s all-time leading scorer Sa’eed Nelson, Harris led AU in minutes played per game, points per game and assists. The Eagle’s data analysis of the 2021 season showed that Harris’ 205 points scored made up 30 percent of AU’s total offense.
Harris announced in March his plans to transfer to Seton Hall and the Eagles will need to find scoring from other sources this season. However, replacing Harris is no easy feat. While Beckton was second on the team in points per game with 13.1 points per game, he and Brennan agreed that it will have to be a team effort to replace Harris’s prolific production and team leadership.
“Every year you lose guys,” Brennan said, continuing that he wishes the best for Harris. “I never really think about somebody filling someone else’s role … I don’t identify the guy who’s the leader; I think it will happen naturally.”
Regardless, the Eagles’ struggle to find a score when it matters most has been a struggle for the team, with a history of losing games they were winning at halftime. An analysis of the Eagles’ box score over the last three years found that AU had lost 15 games they led going into intermission and that the Eagles have lost several games after leading by double digits.
AU’s second-half struggles also affected its defense. On average AU was outscored in the second half on average by one point — the difference also applying for AU’s overtime performances — and the Eagles surrendered 37 points in the second half, six more than they did in the first.
AU also has a rebounding and turnover problem. The Eagles were fifth of 10 in the PL in defensive rebounding and eighth in offensive rebounding in 2021. With virtually the same frontcourt as last season, it is expected that rebounding will again be a struggle for the high-flying team. Turnovers were the team’s Achilles heel last season. AU had the worst turnover margin in the PL last season and had the most turnovers per game in the conference.
AU will have to protect the ball more this season if they want to have any success this season.
AU has a difficult schedule this season. The Eagles played nine of the non-PL teams in 2019-20, the last pre-pandemic season, and went 3-6. However, the only two teams that have a decisive edge in their recent encounters are Georgetown and George Mason, as the Eagles are a combined 21-76 against their D.C., Maryland and Virginia rivals.
However, AU is a model of consistency. The Eagles have gone 35-35 the last three seasons, and the Eagles’ propensity to play close, nail-biting games means that there aren’t many games on their schedule they will lose by default.
With the first game against Marist set to start at 8 p.m. on Nov. 9, the world will know if the Eagles take flight this year.