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Mike Brennan has the American Eagles ready to challenge the Patriot League favorites

American doesn’t project to finish at the top of the league, but it has a solid core

Sa’eed Nelson Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON D.C. — American hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2014, and if Mike Brennan is going to bring the Eagles back this year, a lot has to go right. Early on in the 2019-20 season, there are signs that it is possible.

The Eagles are led by 2019 Patriot League Preseason Player of the Year Sa’eed Nelson. He has been the team’s leader for four years now, gaining all-Patriot League honors in all four. Seven games in, he is averaging 17.0 points per game to go with 4.0 assists and 3.1 steals.

Nelson has talent around him as well, even despite American losing some key pieces to transfer over the years. As a junior, he led the Eagles to a 15-15 record, which helped save head coach Mike Brennan’s job after a pair of single-digit-win seasons.

“I believe we have made significant strides in returning to having a championship-caliber program,” Brennan said after his extension was announced. “I want to thank Dr. Walker and the AU community for the continued support, and I look forward to an exciting upcoming season.”

Brennan’s bread and butter is his Princeton-style offense — one that has been consistently described as tough to prep for. Per Ken Pomeroy, the Eagles’ inside/out play has led them to be 75th in the nation for effective field goal percentage and 64th from behind the arc, meaning they aren’t taking many bad shots.

On Tuesday night, they welcomed in a solid UMBC squad. The Retrievers were banged up, missing leaders Darnell Rogers, RJ Eytle-Rock, and Arkel Lamar. American took advantage of those losses and dominated them. The Eagles had leads as big as 29 and led for all but two minutes of the game.

“Tonight we just kept playing hard on defense and it led to more points, more transition opportunities,” Nelson said after the game. “That’s what I really think the big key is — we get stops, the offense will flow well and we won’t give up 20-point leads.”

The Patriot League is filled with unknowns still through December. Colgate is still the favorite, coming off a near-upset of No. 2 seed Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament last March. The Raiders return all five of their starters from last year and are off to a 6-3 start, winning their past five.

If American wants to challenge the Patriots for that automatic bid, players such as Jacob Boonyasith, Jamir Harris and Stacy Beckton will have to continue their great play.

Boonyasith has the most to prove and has done it a ton early on in his sophomore year. The Michigan native is 51st in the nation in effective field goal percentage and 56th in three-point percentage. He has helped this offense score points, and if he continues to do, so the Eagles will have a core that can compete with Colgate.

American won’t leave the DMV until Jan. 2 when it plays Colgate in Hamilton. It’ll have several more chances in December to boost its resume as well to maximize seeding should the Eagles make the Dance. They’ve already lost to George Mason, but have games with Mount St. Mary’s, Stony Brook, and Georgetown on the horizon. KenPom projects the games with the Mountaineers and Seawolves to be one-point decisions. We’ll know more about the Eagles soon enough.