Johnny O’Neil starts strong as men’s basketball heads into conference play
Junior forward shares his vision for the season
Excellence on the court is not new for Johnny O’Neil. O’Neil, now a junior, has made an impact on AU men’s basketball since he joined the program, winning Patriot League Rookie of the Year as a freshman.
“I didn’t come here planning on cruising by, I want to be the guy on the team that you can count on and rely on,” O’Neil said.
He has certainly accomplished that goal. O’Neil had a remarkable freshman season, despite it being shortened to only 10 games due to the coronavirus pandemic. He contributed an impressive 9.8 points per game, was second on the team in 3-pointers made, and he ranked third in the Patriot League in blocks per game.
At the conclusion of the season, he was named Patriot League Rookie of the Year and made the Patriot League All-Rookie Team.
O'Neil did not show any signs of slowing down in his sophomore season. He scored in the double digits in 13 games, led the team in 3 pointers, rebounds with 4.9 a game and blocks with 33.
O’Neil’s junior season has been off to an impressive start, with the forward having three games in the double digits and averaging a career high 11.5 points per game.
“It’s consistency that you get from a guy that’s been around, but now it’s like we’re getting more of him this season,” head coach Mike Brennan said.
Consistency to O’Neil means more than just scoring. “I’m not always going to be able to control what shots fall, but I can control getting rebounds, guarding the ball well, talking and being a leader on the court.” O’Neil said.
O’Neil’s performance is also contributing to the best start to a season the program has seen since 2011. The AU men’s basketball team is currently on a seven game win streak, an inspiring start for the Eagles, who never won more than two consecutive games last season en route to a 10-22 record.
The Eagles earned the title of district champions this season after beating both crosstown rivals Georgetown University and George Washington University.
American defeated Georgetown University, something the men's basketball program hadn’t been able to accomplish for 40 years. O’Neil led the team in scoring against the Eagles, scoring 16 points and adding four assists.
AU also took down George Washington University, a team they last beat in 2019. O’Neil played an important role in the takedown of the Colonials, scoring a game-high 19 points, which included 4 three-pointers.
O’Neil credits this upward trend to a new work ethic and culture the team has developed.
“Whether it be on the court or off the court, showing up early, getting extra work in, I feel like the culture of the team is a lot better this year,” he said.”You can see the results. We’re starting to win now.”
The Eagles’ offense has also seen an improvement. American was ranked last in the Patriot League in points last season, however this season AU has seen a five point increase in points per game and the team has moved up four spots in the rankings.
“We’ve definitely gotten better at our offense this year. Last year, it got stagnant a lot, and that led to some problems with scoring and having to throw up a shot.” O’Neil said. “This year, we’re a lot farther along regarding everyone knowing what they’re doing on the court. That opens up a lot of opportunities for us to score and make plays now.”
The biggest difference maker for American this season has been their defense. AU has jumped from 7th place in the Patriot League last season to first place this season, only allowing 63.9 points per game.
“We need to be defensively solid, as we have been. Especially once we get into Patriot League play, where there are a lot of good teams. We’re only as strong as our weakest link.” O’Neil said.
The Eagles will start their Patriot League conference play Dec. 30 on the road against Lafayette College. AU has gone 1-9 against the Leopards in their last 10 matchups, and a win over Lafayette would be a testament to how much American has improved this season.
However, the team has their eyes set on a prize much higher: the Patriot League championship. The last time the Eagles took home the championship was in 2014.
“The goal is always the Patriot League championship. That was the goal from before we were winning, and that’s going to stay the goal until the end of the season,” O’Neil said.
AU is currently ranked first in the Patriot League. With the way the Eagles are playing right now, a return to the championship could certainly be possible with O’Neil leading the way.
“It’s fun to be a part of a team where we actually believe in ourselves wholeheartedly and are taking the right steps to get there,” O’Neil said.