American University won the Patriot League and will likely slide in as a No. 14 or No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament. (Bob DeChiara/ USA Today Sports)
Last season, the American University Eagles went 10-20 overall and 5-10 in the Patriot League. One year later, they're headed back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009. On the back of a lockdown defense, the Eagles knocked off Boston University on Wednesday, 55-36, to win the Patriot League championship.
American and Boston were in first and second place, in some order, for the entire conference season. They split their two meetings with one another, but Boston finished two games better in the regular season, earning the seemingly all-important home-court advantage for the conference tournament. The Eagles made the 430-mile trip north from Washington, D.C., to Boston and dominated the game from the outset. They got the first bucket of the game, a layup from Darius Gardner, 32 seconds in and never trailed, increasing the lead to eight by halftime. They kept the Terriers at arm's length the entire second half, and took a double-digit lead with about eight minutes left that only grew until the final buzzer sounded.
Gardner, a junior guard, led American with 18 points, while senior center Tony Wroblicki had 15 and eight rebounds.
Deploying a zone for most of the night, the Eagles held BU to just 30.8-percent shooting from the floor, including 1-of-17 from three. Boston isn't exactly a lights-out shooting team from behind the arc, but they did register a 36.2 field goal percentage from distance on the year. They couldn't find the touch shooting over American's zone, however. The Eagles also locked down on the Terriers without sending them to the line, committing just 10 fouls all night and affording them only seven free throws.
While Boston was the No. 1 seed in the tournament, it would be incorrect to call American an unlikely conference tournament champion. The Eagles are 66th in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom and hung tight in losses to Ohio State and San Francisco early in the season. First-year coach Mike Brennan spent the last four years as an assistant under John Thompson III at Georgetown, bringing to the upper Northwest side of D.C. the Princeton offense both he and Thompson learned while playing for legendary coach Pete Carril. Gardner blossomed in the system, averaging 11.3 points and 4.2 assists per game.
The Eagles play one of the most methodical games in the country, ranking 342nd in adjusted tempo on KenPom. They prize good shot selection above all else, and it shows, with four players averaging in double-figures, three of whom shoot better than 50 percent from the floor. Given all the tumult in the smaller conference tournaments, they'll likely avoid going up against a No. 1 seed, slotting in as a No. 14 or, more likely, a No. 15. With their desire to slow the game down and impose their pace on their opponents, their nightmare matchup would be with a team, such as potential No. 2 seeds Michigan and Duke, that can get out in transition and overwhelm them with offense.