Mike Brennan’s Defense a Major Reason For American’s Success

When you bring up American University basketball these days, most people want to talk about the Princeton offense. They prefer to discuss the offensive system that’s been responsible for American’s pristine ball movement, crisp backdoor cuts, and near flawless execution. They want to understand how a team that lost three key seniors and their long time head coach can now score more than 1.15 points per possession (ppp) and register an assist on 70% of their field goals in conference play. They simply can’t fathom how a team projected to finish ninth in their league could be a perfect ten for ten as Patriot League play moves into February.

The unexpected success must be due to Mike Brennan’s Princeton scheme, say the pundits. How else can you explain the Eagles ascension?

That conclusion has repeatedly been offered, because for whatever the reason, fans and media members love to discuss the Princeton offense. The infatuation of Pete Carril’s scheme has become such a talking point that Brennan’s former boss and mentor, Georgetown head coach John Thompson III, has become rather salty when broached on the subject.

Nevertheless, there’s no denying its impact. Patriot League teams continue to adjust to a scheme that hasn’t been seen, or likely studied, in many years. American’s offensive excellence – they’ve scored at least 1.02 ppp in all ten conference games – has propelled them into the NCAA tournament discussion. And yet, when it comes to practice and the fundamentals Brennan preaches to his players on a daily basis, you may be surprised to learn that offense isn’t on the top of the coach’s list.

“His main focus is on our defense,” said sophomore guard Jeese Reed, who leads the Eagles in scoring at 13.9 points per game. “That’s where you can control things that happen in the game, you can control staying in front of your guy, being in the right spot. The offense comes and goes with each game, but he definitely has a big focus on defense and us trying to improve each and every day.

The arduous work on the less glamorous end of the floor has apparently paid off. Lost in all of the Princeton offense talk has been American’s defense. The Eagles are giving up just 0.96 ppp, and a league leading 0.94 ppp in Patriot League play. Just last year, they allowed opponents to score 1.05 ppp.

Much of defensive improvement lies in a philosophy that’s been embraced and executed farther north in the same conference. Dave Paulsen’s Bucknell teams, who have led the Patriot League in defensive efficiency the past three seasons while qualifying for the NCAA tournament in two of those years, have successfully employed a scheme that limits an opponent’s transition opportunities, doesn’t take too many risks and forces opponents into difficult shots. It sounds simple enough, but the key is to remain extremely disciplined. (It also helps to have a Mike Muscala locking down the paint, too.)

The addition of Darius Gardner (right) adds another demension to American's defensive attack. (Photo Credit - Jamie Sabau)
The addition of Darius Gardner (right) adds another dimension to American’s defensive attack. (Photo Credit – Jamie Sabau)

And yet, there’s one major wrinkle that adds another dimension to Brennan’s defense. It’s 5’9″ point guard Darius Gardner. His ability to freelance and take chances in the half-court can make life extremely difficult for opposing players who dare to wander around the perimeter with the ball. His nationally ranked steal rate of 3.4% is evidence of that.

“I kind of gamble a lot,” Gardner admitted after he registered three critical steals in the second half of a 63-57 victory over Holy Cross on Saturday. “Coach (Brennan) gets on me a little when I do gamble and I don’t get it and they score on us. That’s what my team needs. I’m a defensive guy.”

If the slick and agile Gardner plays the role of the roamer, Holy Cross head coach Milan Brown compared him to former Baltimore Raven’s safety Ed Reed after the game, Wroblicky serves as the rim protector. He currently has a league leading 2.1 blocks per game. This allows the other three Eagles on the floor to focus on practicing fundamentally sound defense. Force opponents to take contested shots, don’t get overextended from your defensive responsibility and above all else protect the defensive glass.

The new philosophy has reaped dividends thus far – for the season opponents are shooting a miserable 31.4% from three, far worse than last season when they made 41.1% of their attempts from behind the arc. Moreover, opponents have been denied second chance opportunities with American ranking third in the Patriot League in defensive rebounding rate.

Their tenth victory over a spirited Holy Cross club didn’t yield an impressive defensive effort – the Crusaders scored 1.07 ppp and shot 60.0% from the floor in the defeat – but when American needed stops late, they shut the door.

For all of the defensive efforts, however, everything remains tied to the Princeton offense. At least that’s the view of some coaches.

“They have a very good marriage of their offense and defense,” Brown said after Saturday’s difficult loss in Washington D.C. “They can keep you on defense for 25 seconds for four straight possessions and the way they score some of their baskets, if you let it can be demoralizing, where you guard a team for 30 seconds and all of a sudden some guy slips in and scores on a backdoor (cut) or makes a three. So then you go down on the other end, and then all of a sudden defensively they’re keeping everybody in front, they make you take contested shots.”

Add it all up, and you have an American team that’s now projected to finish 16-2 in the Patriot League, according to KenPom. That would be good enough for a number one seed in the conference’s postseason tournament, and more importantly, home court advantage throughout. Debate all you want about the reason for American’s instant success, but at the very least, we can all agree that Mike Brennan and his players are doing a marvelous job in his first season at the helm.

Just make sure you give American’s defense some credit as well.

Ryan covers the Patriot League for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @pioneer_pride

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