5 early thoughts on the 2018-19 American Eagles

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This morning, Oct. 20, we got our first very brief look at the AU Eagles as the men’s team joined up with the women’s team for a skills exhibition of sorts at Bender Arena. After the competitions, head coach Mike Brennan joked, “I was feeling good about our team before that display. We’ve got some work to do.” Brennen then answered some fans’ questions before the team headed to Morgan State for one of two scrimmages. The Eagles will also scrimmage James Madison.

We will present our full season preview in the coming weeks, but to whet your appetite, here are five early observations:

1. Sa’eed Nelson’s team
Need we say more? Anyone who watched Nelson in the Patriot League tournament game last spring vs. Lafayette — remember the 41-point performance? — knows Nelson can absolutely back up being named Patriot League preseason POY, especially given the defections across the league (hello, non-favored Bucknell). But on Saturday, Brennan spoke mostly of the strides Nelson, now a junior, has made in the leadership department.

“His leadership is the thing that he’s improved upon the most,” Brennan said. “He just started to lead by example a lot more (this spring) and just became a terrific practice player leading the group. I think he knew what was ahead of him this year.”

This IS Nelson’s team, and how he carries himself and leads in many ways will have an impact. It will be interesting to see how much truth Brennan’s words carry.

2. Height and weight gains
Any official roster listing should be taken with a grain of salt. I’ll never fully believe a player’s height or wingspan unless I have a tape measurer in hand. That said, a handful of Eagles are bigger, in particular Nelson. He was listed as 6-1, 175 last year; he’s now listed as 6-2, 190 and sources tell me he’s probably 6-1 because there’s no way he was that last year. Regardless, he is bigger, stronger, and will be more prepared to take beatings on his drives to the basket.

Other improvements:
Jesse Little, soph. — 6-10, 178 to 6-10, 204 (26 pounds). Little is still skinny, but bigger.
Stacy Beckton Jr., soph. — 6-4, 171 to 6-4, 186 (15 pounds). Another player who desperately needed to bulk up.

3. Josh Alexander looks like the real deal
Alexander made a halfcourt shot Saturday; that was about all the skills competition showed. But more importantly, he looked the 6-8, 243 that he’s listed. Between Alexander and the respective returns of Mark Gasperini (6-10, 245), who knocked in a 3 during his time on the floor Saturday, and Yilret Yiljep (6-7, 250), American has real size and strength for the first time since … you fill in the blank, it’s been a while.

I think it’s safe to say we’ll see far less Sam Iorio at the 5 this season and far more two-big lineups that can crash the glass and provide a defensive presence that American has lacked during this two-year swoon.

4. The shooters club
I’m going to go out on a limb and make a prediction about Jacob Boonyasith — he is on this team primarily to shoot 3s. The freshman from Michigan showed off his stroke during the 3-point contest portion of the skills competition, swishing all five from the left wing. The kid can definitely shoot. Iorio was also a nice 9-for-10 during the competition. In case you were wondering, he can still shoot. Iorio was 43 percent from 3 last year — by far the best perimeter shooter the Eagles had — and Boonyasith looks to be the bench guy who can light it up in 2018-19.

5. Y.Y. is back, and that’s a great thing
There’s nothing not to like about the story of Yiljep, who is back on a basketball team in uniform for the first time since early 2014 when he was diagnosed with a heart condition. Turns out, his heart is fine and Yiljep was cleared to play college basketball again during the past year while remaining around the program as a mentor. He graduated in 2017 and has been cleared by the NCAA and Patriot League to play at least this season as a graduate student pursuing a master’s in marketing.

Brennan was asked about Yiljep’s health and conditioning Saturday.

“Y.Y. is in great shape,” Brennan said. “He’s probably in the best shape of anyone on our team right now to be honest.”

It remains to be seen what kind of impact Yiljep will have on the court, but the intangibles he will bring can’t be understated. We’re talking about a college graduate’s presence in the locker room.

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American was picked by coaches to finish seventh in he Patriot League. On the one hand, that seemed generous given how bad the Eagles were the last two years. On the other hand, a team with the league POY was chosen seventh? The KenPom rankings that just came out were more generous to the Eagles. Here’s how the league was ranked by the analytics expert:

Lehigh 187th
Colgate 205th
Bucknell 206th
Holy cross 207th
American 222nd
Army 223rd
Boston 235th
Navy 272nd
Lafayette 290th
Loyola 298th

Much more to come in the lead-up to Nov. 9’s opener at George Mason. Stay tuned and be sure to follow us on Twitter @AUhoopspodcast.