Dave Crespo of the podcast was at AU Media Day and the Chalk Talk Oct. 21, where he spoke to most of the players and coach Mike Brennan, and had these initial takeaways of the 2017-18 AU Eagles who were predicted to finish ninth in the Patriot League by the conference's coaches and SIDs.
1. AU moved quick to recover from mass transfers; assistant coaches might not sleep
It's no secret that the Eagles were in a dark place when they were one of the first Division I teams to have their season end in the first round of the Patriot League tournament. That dark place became pitch black when in the ensuing weeks, Delante Jones, Lonnie Rivera, Alex Paquin and Andrija Matic all decided to transfer out of the program.
What was going on? Would the transfers affect the commitment of state champion Sam Iorio? There were dozens of legitimate questions to be asked about the program, but the Eagles bounced back about as well as one could hope for with three additions in a matter of months — Jesse Little, Stacy Beckton Jr., and Cheikh Diallo. Brennan spoke very briefly about the rollercoaster spring and early summer for the Eagles.
"You just have to do it in a condensed time frame. And you don’t necessarily know what you always need. You’re trying to bring in guys for upperclassmen, so it makes it a little difficult. It just shows there’s lots of players out there. I give my assistants credit because as soon as those guys (Delante, Lonnie, Andrija, Alex) were done/gone, they kept in touch with a lot of guys throughout the year. So part of it is that it’s (recruitment) never over because who knows what’s going to happen. We were able to call up guys that they had seen, guys they had me see, so we weren’t just starting from scratch. So let’s call Jesse Little, guys, we liked that guy a lot when we saw him last summer and he still has nothing. So I give my assistants a ton of credit for being on it 24/7, which is grueling."
2. Sa'eed's focus on shooting
As we covered extensively last season, Sa'eed Nelson was absolutely terrific and is arguably the best point guard in the Patriot League entering this season.
But Nelson struggled greatly with his shot, making just 21 percent of his 3-point attempts and 56 percent of his team-leading 178 free-throw attempts. Running the offense for a young team this year, can Sa'eed improve his offensive efficiency? He spoke about his offseason emphasis Saturday:
"My offseason was mainly getting the shot down pat. Obviously I was working on everything else, I was on the track, lifting, dribbling, ball handling, but it was definitely getting my shot down pat. I didn’t shoot so great from the 3-point line and the free throw line last year, so I was definitely working on that all summer. I’m ready to put it to the test this season."
3. Sam Iorio is ready to contribute
For the second straight year, American has an all-state player and an incredible winner at the high school level joining its roster. If you're reading this, you probably know what Sam Iorio has done on the court up until now.
"I’ve been dreaming about this my whole life and it’s finally coming true," he said Saturday of playing college ball.
He should be ready by the opening tip Nov. 10, because all indications are that he'll follow the mold of Delante Jones two seasons ago and Nelson a year ago and play big minutes right away.
"Sam is going to play a ton," Brennan said.
4. Motuzis learned a lot last year
It's easy to forget, but Larry Motuzis was on American's bench all last year. The Saint Xaiver transfer had to sit out the season, but absorbed plenty from the bench. Now, the 6-6 sweet-shooting junior guard (41 percent from 3 his last season at Saint X) is ready to contribute, and is confident in his understanding of American's Princeton-style offense.
"Coming here where they run the Princeton, for me that year was spent absorbing everything, running the Princeton, seeing it, adjusting to the grind and long practices," Motuzis said. "The biggest takeaway for me was understanding the Princeton and knowing where everyone is supposed to be, not just me. This year I’ll be able to show the younger guys where everyone’s got to be."
Unknown to us, Motuzis said that this summer he broke two bones in his face but is good to go now. He's ready to bring his shooting and play-making ability to the Eagles and could nab a starting position or come off the bench behind James Washington.
Motuzis said that he was only 6-2 coming out of high school and not ready yet physically or mentally for Division I basketball. Now he believe he's up to the challenge.
"I think it just took two more years for me to grow up and get more mature to be ready to play at this level," he said. "Out of high school I wasn’t ready to play at this level."
5. Bringing the freshmen up to speed
This is the biggest question mark of the season for the Eagles. While Nelson and Mark Gasperini will lead the way, and James Washington, Matt Cimino and Motuzis should contribute, too, the Eagles will need at least a few of their freshmen to be steady contributors for this team to take a step — or three — up in the Patriot League. Outside of Iorio, your guess is as good as mine, although Brennan hinted at a few developments (take his words with a grain of salt):
"To be honest, Jesse Little sort of poked his head out a little bit more than the others. Stacy Beckton is a talent and knows how to play," Brennan said. "I think those three have sort of risen above. Having said that, I can see Drew Lamont figuring it out and contributing later on, as well as Marvin (Bragg). Even guys like (walk-on) Nick Macarchuk. He knows what he’s doing, he’s like Charlie-ish in his mentality, maybe not as athletic but the mentality is there which is more important than anything, but that might get him minutes at some point. I think they can all contribute but those first three guys are probably the main guys."
Little will likely have to battle Matt Cimino for minutes backing up Gasperini at the 5, but could also get some run at the 4 — heck, he could start. He didn't miss an outside shot during the Chalk Talk practice open to the public. From what we watched of Beckton during AU's Australia trip, he's very raw. His ballhandling needs a lot of work — it's similar to Washington his freshman year — and he'll have to prove that he can knock down open shots. We'll see how much he can stick in the guards rotation with Nelson likely playing 37-40 minutes a game, and Washington and Motuzis bringing experience.
The 6-6 Bragg brings more size and could play more positions, but if you take Brennan at his word, it sounds like he's not ready. Same for the 6-7 Lamont, who brings more muscle to the roster at 210 pounds (for comparison's sake, the 6-10 Little is listed at a mind-boggling 178 pounds on AU's official roster). Brennan didn't say anything about junior college transfer Diallo, who at 6-1 would be a fourth backcourt player battling for minutes.
One thing seemed evident on media day, though — AU's returning players are set on doing everything they can to bring the freshmen up to speed and ready to contribute. Even if the new guys steal their minutes, they are eager to teach as much as the coaching staff.
"It’s kind of like déjà vu watching them go through the whole process," Washington, now a junior, said. "When they first came in, we’re trying to get them figured out so that they won’t get in trouble or get yelled at, just know what they’re doing. They’re learning the offense a little bit faster than we did, which is good. And they have a lot of intensity and they want to compete, so it makes our job to help them out a lot easier."
Seventeen days until the season. We'll learn more pretty soon.