A few minutes after American had put on a basketball clinic on Wednesday night in an 86-56 rout of Boston University to claim first place in the Patriot League, Eagles point guard Darius Gardner explained what had led him to change his outside shot prior to the season.
“Actually, it was legendary coach Pete Carril,” he said, having no idea the legendary coach was walking up behind him at that moment. “He came on the court one day during practice and suggested I make a change.”
Carril had been sitting courtside at Bender Arena looking like a proud father while AU, coached by Mike Brennan, his former player and pupil, dismantled the preseason Patriot League favorite.
“I thought we played well,” Brennan said after the game in one of the great coaching understatements of the century.
That’s Brennan, though, as understated as Carril, his mentor, is gregarious. Carril coached at Princeton for 29 years and won 514 games with the Tigers — including an upset of UCLA, the defending national champion, in his final NCAA tournament in 1996. The winning basket in that game was scored on a backdoor cut, a fitting climax because that was the signature move of what everyone in basketball now calls “the Princeton offense.”
That’s the offense Brennan, who was a four-year starter at Princeton and graduated in 1994, brought with him to AU last spring after spending four seasons working under John Thompson III — another ex-Carril player, pupil and protege — at Georgetown.
“The only thing I knew about the Princeton offense was that Georgetown ran it,” senior center Tony Wroblicky said. “It was an adjustment at first, but once we started to get the hang of it, I really liked it. Now I think it’s fair to say we all love it.”
With good reason. The stunningly easy win over BU — a team that beat Maryland in College Park in December and came to town with a 6-0 conference record — put the Eagles in sole possession of first place.
Saturday’s 84-74 win at Army boosted the Eagles’ conference record to 8-0 (12-7 overall) one game shy of the halfway point of the league season.
This from a team with a rookie coach that was picked ninth in a newly expanded 10-team conference in the preseason. This from a team that plays one senior — Wroblicky — and spent most of the offseason and the first part of this season learning a complicated new offense.
“I told them before the season started that I wasn’t going to focus on wins and losses and neither should they,” Brennan said. “That isn’t to say we didn’t want to win, but the most important thing from the beginning has been to get better every day. They’ve done that, and now we’re starting to see some results.”
The results didn’t come easily. The Eagles were 3-7 when they came home from a pre-Christmas trip to California, but Brennan and the players felt as if they were starting to see tangible progress.
“It was a matter of time,” Gardner said. “We had a new coach and a new offense and I was learning, too. Plus, we played some pretty good teams along the way. That helped us get better too.”
The Eagles’ performance Wednesday was breathtaking. They missed 5 of 6 shots to start the game and trailed 13-2. In the game’s final 35 minutes they shot 29 for 36 (including a ridiculous 16 for 19 in the second half) and outscored the Terriers 84-43.
Those numbers didn’t come against a Division III team or a Patriot League bottom-feeder. “They were pretty close to perfect,” Carril said at game’s end. He smiled. “Of course, I’m going to tell Mike that maybe they could have been a little less aggressive at the end, but that’ll just be to keep him in line.”
Carril is 83 and still looks exactly like Yoda, the Jedi master from “Star Wars.” He doesn’t limit his teachings to his former players turned coaches. That’s why he walked on to the practice court during a preseason visit to see Brennan and his new team and told Gardner he needed to change the way he shot the ball from outside. At 5 feet 9, Gardner doesn’t shoot a jump shot as much as he shoots a flat-footed semi-set shot when he finds himself left open.
“I was shooting it from behind my head,” Gardner said. “It wasn’t all that good, but it was what I’d done for a long time. All of a sudden, Coach Carril is telling me I need to change it. To be honest, it was awkward at first. I mean, on the one hand it was Coach Carril. On the other hand, we were getting ready to start the season and he wanted me to change my shot.”
Gardner transferred to AU from Stephen F. Austin a year ago. If Jeff Jones had a serious regret about leaving AU last spring to take the Old Dominion job, it was not getting to coach the Eagles with Gardner running the offense. Since the graduation of Derrick Mercer in 2009, Jones had searched for a true playmaking point guard. When Gardner showed up on campus in the fall of 2012, he knew he had finally found him — but had to wait a year to get him on the court because of NCAA transfer rules.
“Without knocking the other guys in any way because they’ve been great, he’s the reason we’ve been able to do this,” Brennan said. “Everything we do starts with him.”
“He’s our ‘Mr. Everything,’ ” Wroblicky said. “Anything we really need — a big shot, a pass, defense, ballhandling — he does it.”
Which may explain why Gardner was averaging 39.8 minutes per game in league play prior to Wednesday, when he was given the last three minutes off with the game in hand. Gardner is to Brennan as point guard Sidney Lowe was to Jim Valvano at North Carolina State in 1983. When Lowe told Valvano late in a game one night that he needed a brief rest, Valvano nodded and said. “You’ll get one Sidney — just as soon as you’re out of eligibility.”
Gardner is a junior, and he figures to play every crucial minute possible for the next two seasons. It is clear the Eagles are now comfortable in their new offense. While most of the focus is on the passing aspects of it, screening — legally and hard — is also critical. On Wednesday, everyone on the floor set hard screens all night without once being called for a foul.
Gardner made 5 of 6 shots from three-point range, his best shooting night of the season. That put a smile on his Jedi master’s face.
“He’s got it here,” Carril said, drawing a circle with his finger around Gardner’s chest area. “And here,” pointing to Gardner’s head. Then he smiled and poked Gardner in the chest. “And you’re using that brain in class, too, right Darius?”
Gardner laughed. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I promise.”
Clearly Gardner and his teammates have used their brains to learn their new offense, too. Which is why the cold winter nights in Northwest D.C. have a very warm feeling to them right now. It’s a warm feeling that could continue well into March.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.