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MILWAUKEE – Mike Brennan arrived at American University last April, hired to redirect the program after a disastrous 10-win season in 2012-13. He brought the Princeton offense with him, which exactly none of his players had any thorough experience running. So they started at the start. One of the first workout drills involved dribbling toward someone. Another involved throwing a pass and screening away. Another involved taking layups, but not just any layups. The Eagles were instructed to approach the rim from the left side and shoot a right-handed layup while jumping off their right foot.
For anyone who has played organized basketball – and certainly for a group of Division I scholarship players – this amounted both to remedial learning and a total mind-wipe about correct shooting form. But Brennan's offense often would require shots taken from awkward angles and approaches. So the Eagles had to un-know everything they thought they knew.
“The first day was one of the most confusing days I've ever had in my basketball career,” said freshman guard Jesse Reed, American's leading scorer. “I never thought I'd second-guess my layup ability.”
American's players eventually became adept enough at not just the basics but also at the more complicated nuances of Brennan's teachings to win the Patriot League title and earn the program's first NCAA tournament bid since 2009. The Eagles will open play in the West region on Thursday as a No. 15 seed, hoping to become just the eighth team ever seeded there to win a tournament game.
That's not very many, but it's a lot more than the zero times a 16-seed has evicted a No. 1 seed from the brackets. Two No. 2 seeds, Wisconsin and Michigan, will be heavy favorites to advance out of Thursday's action at the Bradley Center. But history suggests the two No. 15 seeds that will try to take them out, American and Wofford, have a chance to do just that. “We think anything's possible, especially in the tournament,” Eagles forward Kyle Kager said. “I wouldn't be surprised at all if we end up winning the game.”
Brennan has first-hand experience at being on the wrong end of just such an upset, having been an assistant last March when No. 2 seed Georgetown was slammed out of the tournament by the residents of Dunk City, Florida Gulf Coast. Still he has no use for the idea of reverse-engineering what Florida-Gulf Coast managed against the Hoyas team he helped lead last March, saying he was “not much on the bulletin board-type stuff or anything like that.” Wofford, too, shrugged off the possibilities that it hasn't stopped hearing for days.
“They've been telling us that ever since the selection show,” Terriers guard Karl Cochran said. “I guess the mindset our whole team has had is we're not going to play the numbers game. Fifteen-two. Oh well. One-sixteen. Oh well. It's a basketball game. We're not going to overestimate them. They're just a team. They can lose, we can lose.”
Precedent isn't enough anyway, of course. But a stark style contrast or variation can be. Michigan has the nation's third-best adjusted offensive efficiency ranking at 122.1 points per 100 possessions, but its tempo rating (62.8 possessions per night) is 328th nationally and not that far a cry from the deliberate pace at which Wofford plays (62 possessions per game, 338th nationally). The Wolverines will push the ball when they clean up the glass but are comfortable enough in the half-court setting to mitigate any tempo advantage the Terriers might have.
American, meanwhile, offers something Wisconsin hasn't seen, at least not since Bill Carmody and Northwestern parted ways after last season. The Princeton offense may be one of the NCAA tournament's all-time great levelers, limiting possessions and margin for error on both sides. The urgency with which the Badgers began to prepare for it underscored that. When American popped up on Selection Sunday, Zach Bohannon's antennae popped up as well. He had played in the Princeton offense while at Air Force before transferring to Wisconsin. He knew what it portended. He turned to his teammates and insisted they get on the floor to run through the basic motions.
“They looked at me dumbfounded, like, what the hell are you talking about, it's just an offense,” Bohannon said. “I was like, no, it's not, it took me a year to learn.”
Wisconsin isn't a hasty, careless outfit. But American has no offensive sets, per se, to memorize. It's just constant motion with multiple options. And it's just hard to learn in three days.
“It teaches a whole different basketball mindset,” Bohannon said. “When I was at Air Force, you don't do the triple threat. You don't do some of the the things you normally are taught as a basketball player, just because you want to get the defense to go to sleep, lift up, get out of your defensive stance and think that the ball is way on the other side, I don't necessarily need to pay attention.”
Said Kager: “In this offense, you not only have to worry about backdoors, you have to worry about curls and all sorts of different cuts and reading screens. It's difficult for teams to defend that and be really ready all the time, for 35 seconds. Because if you let your guard down for a second, it's an easy two points.”
It's something more solid to stand upon than the accomplishments of previous No. 15 seeds. If that past doesn't exactly loom large Thursday – especially with two Big Ten No. 2 seeds having the added advantage of playing in the thick of Big Ten country – it at least looms a little. That seemed almost impossible a few months back when a group of college basketball players were learning how to dribble, pass and shoot all over again.
The American Eagles are beyond that now, and that gives them at least a fraction of a chance to be the next 15th seed to get beyond its first game. “Anyone is beatable at this time,” American guard Darius Gardner said. “Hopefully we can be the next team that can make an upset.”