by David Elfin

No one thought much of American University’s men’s basketball team when the season began. The Eagles had been just 10-20 overall, 5-9 in the Patriot League last season. They had a rookie coach in Mike Brennan and just two players, senior center Tony Wroblicky and junior guard John Schoof, who had played more than 16 minutes on the 22-9 team of 2011-12. No wonder AU was picked to finish near the bottom of the Patriot League.

But after last year’s disaster, the veteran Eagles were eager to try something different – the motion offense that Brennan learned as a player and assistant at Princeton in which everyone handles the ball and superior shot selection is the core principle – while the newcomers weren’t wedded to the previous system.

Brennan said that his players picked up what he wanted them to do faster than he had anticipated even as AU lost to Mt. St. Mary’s, Brown (at home) and Columbia while going 3-7 against non-conference foes in November and December.

“From day one, everybody was totally into what we were doing and gave everything that they had,” said Brennan, an assistant to Jeff Jones for AU’s only NCAA teams in 2008 and 2009 before helping John Thompson III coach Georgetown to the tournament the past four years. “For the most part, we had a chance to win every game in the last few minutes. So the guys saw that we were improving despite our record.”

The players bonded during the week back home after their losses at St. Mary’s (Ca.) and San Francisco. They returned to the court on Jan. 2 with a decisive victory over Maryland-Eastern Shore and just kept winning. By the time, the streak finally ended on Feb. 5 at Loyola (Md.), AU had won 11 straight and was a stunning 10-0 in the Patriot League.

“I was disappointed that we were dropping some games, but I knew if we kept on working at it, we would be successful,” said the 6-foot-10 Wroblicky, who’s third on the Eagles in scoring (12.3 points behind sharp-shooting sophomore small forward Jesse Reed and Schoof), second in assists (2.7) and easily the top rebounder (7.2). “We had the talent. We had the pieces. We had the camaraderie and the chemistry.”

A big reason for the latter factors was AU’s smallest player, 5-9 junior point guard Darius “Pee Wee” Gardner, a transfer from Stephen F. Austin who leads the team with an average of 4.4 assists while scoring 11.7 points per night and providing more than his share of intangibles.

“Pee Wee is a terrific leader, on and off the court,” Brennan said. “He’s a great decision-maker. He has a great mind for the game. He impacts the game, offensively and defensively, every possession. He’s our second-leading offensive rebounder. He makes steals, takes charges. He’s a coach on the floor. You couldn’t ask for a better kid.”

And Brennan and Co. couldn’t have asked for a better night than the one they had on Jan. 22 at Bender Arena against Boston U., the preseason Patriot favorite which had won at Maryland in December. The Eagles hit 71 percent of their shots while holding the Terriers to 32 percent and won the rebounding battle 30-19 in an 86-56 shocker.

Since that night, AU is 4-3 – losing to Patriot lightweights Loyola, Colgate and Lafayette — while BU is 6-1 and has taken first place with a 12-2 league mark. The rematch is tonight in Boston.

“I expect them to come out with as much intensity as they’ve had all season,” Gardner said. “We have to match that. If we do that and we stick to our principles, we’ll be fine.”

After tonight, AU finishes its regular season by sandwiching a visit to Navy around home games against Army and Bucknell, all of whom it has already beaten. The Eagles, who are tied for the national lead with a .504 field goal percentage and rank 13th in scoring defense have clinched a quarterfinal at Bender in the Patriot tournament and could be destined for a third meeting with the Terriers with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line.

“This has been a very fun year for me,” said Wroblicky, AU’s only senior who’ll likely be replaced by 6-9 redshirt Kevin Panzer next season. “When we play our game, we can beat anybody.”

They’ve already done that in the league. And at 15-10 overall, 11-3 in the Patriot, Brennan’s debut has already been a success.

“I’m happy with where we are,” he said. “The guys have worked hard to put themselves in a good position. We’ve just gotta finish out as strong as possible.”

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.


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