AU Looks to Bounce Back with Mike Brennan
No one at American University expected Jeff Jones, then the dean of Washington area college basketball coaches, to leave. Jones had delivered nine winning records during his 13 seasons, including AU’s only trips to the NCAA Tournament in 2008 and 2009.
However, Jones shocked his players by opting to move on to Old Dominion in April, giving AU a chance to wipe the slate clean after a 10-20 record, its worst since his debut a dozen years earlier.
In the process of starting over, AU turned to a familiar face in Bender Arena. New coach Mike Brennan was an assistant under Jones for two seasons, not so coincidentally the years that the Eagles earned those invitations to the big dance.
“When I was an assistant here, it was a great school and a great program and I had a great time so I’m very excited to be back,” said the 41-year-old Brennan, a Georgetown assistant when the Hoyas reached the NCAAs in each of the past four years. “As soon as I heard Jeff was leaving, I was a little more aggressive than I had been in the past about trying to get the job because it’s such a special place.”
While AU, Georgetown and Princeton, where Brennan played before starting his coaching career in 2000-01, all share a strong emphasis on academics, the Tigers were on a streak of 14 straight winning seasons when Brennan became an assistant and the Hoyas were on a similar 10-year run. In contrast, the Eagles graduated four of the top six players from a team that surprisingly struggled last season.
“I had some personal success last year, but it was a tough season for all of us,” said junior shooting guard John Schoof, who joins senior center Tony Wroblicky as the only remaining players from the team that went 22-9 in 2011-12. “That wasn’t AU basketball.”
The 6-foot-10 Wroblicky concurred with that assessment.
“We’re still kind of embarrassed about last year,” Wroblicky said. “It was tough having me [and since-departed fellow big man Stephen] Lumpkins together. It clogged up the lane and made us real predictable because neither of us could really step out and stretch out the floor. There’s a lot more movement, a lot more spacing now.”
That’s happening because Brennan is an excellent teacher, according to Georgetown forward Nate Lubick. Former Eagles guard Simon McCormack assured Wroblicky, AU’s second-leading rebounder last year, and Schoof, who was second in assists and third in scoring, that Brennan was a good fit, especially since he understood how the program operated and the school’s academic stresses.
Wroblicky and Schoof will be joined in the lineup by 5-9 point guard Darius “Pee Wee” Gardner, a transfer from Stephen F. Austin. Junior Kyle Kager and Nigerian freshman Yilret Yiljep might be first in line in the competition to be the starting forwards.
“It’s a good group,” said Brennan, who’s more low-key than the often-animated Jones. “I like the pieces that we have. Our upperclassmen have been great leaders. Hopefully, we play hard, share the ball. We’ll try to implement a lot of Princeton’s [disciplined] principles because I played there and I coached there [as did Georgetown coach John Thompson III]. It’s different from what they’re used to, but I’m happy with where we are right now.”
Thompson, who endorsed Brennan’s hiring, expects his protégé to achieve big things across town, although perhaps not this season. AU opens the Brennan era on Nov. 8 at George Mason, its fellow former Colonial Athletic Association member, before kicking off the home schedule against UMBC six nights later. Its toughest test will come six nights after that at Ohio State. And while Mike Muscala and C.K. McCollum, who dominated the Patriot League the past four years, are gone, the Eagles are being picked to finish near the bottom.
“We’re more dangerous than people think,” said Wroblicky, who, at a minimum, wants to get the program back on track before he graduates.
“It won’t happen right away, but we think have a good enough team to really compete and win the league,” Schoof added. “We have to get back to where we were, back on top.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.