By following a good blueprint, Coach Mike Brennan has turned around the American University men’s basketball team in his first year after serving as Coach John Thompson III’s top assistant at Georgetown for four seasons. There’s no doubt about it: American and Georgetown play similarly. But Thompson’s influence on Brennan is only part of American’s story.
Another key to the Eagles’ resurgence is that Brennan — an understated straight-talker in a profession of animated used-car salesmen — is as committed to helping players improve as they are willing to work. After a lot of heavy lifting, American is back in the NCAA tournament and appears to be in good shape for the future under Brennan, even if history says this season’s run likely will end Thursday afternoon.
Seeded 15th in the West Region, American faces second-seeded Wisconsin (26-7) at Bradley Center in Milwaukee. There’s nothing neutral about a site that’s 78 miles from the Badgers’ home arena. This is one of those uh-oh matchups low-major teams face as a “reward” for making the NCAA tournament. The Eagles, however, already are big winners regardless of the game’s outcome. When a team has traveled as far as American has to reach this point, there’s no other way to look at it.
Picked ninth in the Patriot League’s preseason poll after finishing 10-20 last season, American (20-12) finished second in the regular season and easily defeated top-seeded Boston University in the conference tournament final. For such significant improvement to occur quickly, players must believe in their coach. Clearly, Brennan’s message was well received.
“From Day One, he told us he would make us all better all-around basketball players. What basketball player doesn’t want that?” redshirt junior point guard Darius “Pee Wee” Gardner said the other day. “From that moment, we bought into” Brennan’s vision of the program.
Brennan figured they would. An assistant on American’s first two teams that went to the NCAA tournament in 2008 and 2009, Brennan said he “continued to follow the program closely” after leaving for Georgetown. “I knew the team. I liked the pieces we had.”
Specifically, Brennan expected to lean on Gardner, senior center Tony Wroblicky, junior guard John Schoof and sophomore guard Jesse Reed. “I knew Schoof could really shoot,” Brennan said. “I knew Jess is a good, young player, Pee Wee is [talented] and Tony is real active. I really wasn’t worried about [the outside perception]. I knew we had a group of disciplined, hard workers.”
Gardner, Wroblicky — named the Patriot League defensive player of the year — and Schoof were the first to embrace Brennan’s new approach, which included the so-called Princeton offense. Both Brennan and Thompson learned the disciplined strategy, which emphasizes motion, passing and back-door cuts, while playing at Princeton under legendary coach Pete Carril. Some players dislike the deliberate style of play because it limits individual freedom. The Eagles have no complaints. They’re shooting 49.5 percent as a team — the sixth-highest mark in the country — and 65.7 percent of their field goals come off an assist, better than any other team in the nation.
“It started out with great leadership” from Wroblicky, Gardner and Schoof, said Brennan, who was named Patriot League coach of the year. “The rest of the team sort of followed their lead.”
The Eagles’ commitment to playing tough defense was equally strong. None of the Eagles’ past six opponents have scored more than 56 points. Overall, American has limited its opponents to 41.1 percent shooting.
“For us to be competitive, we know that’s where it starts,” Brennan said. “We have to make it difficult for the other team to get good shots.”
People who know Brennan well say that beyond being sharp with X’s and O’s, what has enabled him to succeed in his first year as a head coach is his commitment to detail. Although most coaches are obsessive, Brennan is off the charts, but in a good way.
“His level of caring is unmatched,” said Thompson, whom Brennan also worked under at Princeton. “Believe me, at some point this summer, he will agonize over a turnover in the first half in the third game of the year. He’s going to agonize over what happened, why it happened and he’ll do everything he can to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
“But the same thing also applies to the kids he’s coaching. He cares about their lives off the court. He cares about what happens to them. He will agonize over situations that they’re going through. He’ll do whatever he can to help them. His level of caring and his attention to detail is unmatched.”
After Thompson was hired by Georgetown in 2004, he offered Brennan an opportunity to be part of his first Hoyas staff. “But to give you a little bit about Mike, and he probably wouldn’t want me to tell this story, but he [turned down the job] because he didn’t want the whole staff to leave and leave the kids alone, so he stayed” at Princeton, Thompson said. “That’s who Mike is. He’s just the best.”
Brennan was seated next to Thompson last season when 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast shocked second-seeded Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and now the Eagles will try to become only the eighth No. 15 seed to win a first-round game since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. It will be a big challenge, but Brennan and the Eagles have experience at achieving unexpected success.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.