Playing Their Way: On American’s Slow Pace

Posted by Ray Curren on December 29th, 2014

American sophomore Charlie Jones was wide open when he got the ball in the right corner in the first half last Tuesday night at Stony Brook, the Eagles’ final non-conference game before beginning defense of their Patriot League title on Wednesday at Bucknell. Of course, “open” can be surprisingly subjective in the college basketball world. And although Jones has started 10 of 12 games this season, made more than 50 percent of his field goal attempts, and didn’t appear to have any immediate impediment to a 15-footer, he faked and kicked the ball back out. After all, there were still 25 seconds left on the shot clock, and by the high standards Mike Brennan and American have set, Jones wasn’t nearly open enough.

Mike Brennan

Mike Brennan, in His Second Year, Already Has a PL Title

Love it or hate it – and opponents usually fall into the latter category – slow and steady won the Patriot League race last season, with the coda coming in a 56-possession masterpiece, a 55-36 Patriot Tournament final win over Boston University in which American only attempted 34 field goals (but made 19). Making the title even more remarkable, American had been picked ninth in the preseason poll with a first-year leader who had no previous head coaching experience.

Even though Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year Tony Wroblicky graduated in May, American (7-5) is not going to fool the conference this season, picked by the league coaches to repeat the feat. With another year to implement his Princeton offense, Brennan has responded in kind by playing even slower. The Eagles are dead last (351st) nationally in adjusted tempo, more than a possession better (or worse?) than Wyoming at 350th. They opened the season with a plodding 40-37 near-upset of Temple, and their last two games — a win over Mount St. Mary’s and last week’s loss to Stony Brook — were two of the five slowest games in Division I this season.

Even beyond pure tempo, some of American’s numbers (both regular and advanced) border on the absurd. Winless Florida A&M is the only team in the country averaging fewer points per game, and you have to go 29 more spots up the ladder to Saint Joseph’s (#320) to find the next team with a winning record. Yet American is fifth in scoring defense, and the four teams above them (Virginia, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) are a combined 46-3 on the season. American really doesn’t do offensive rebounding (#347) or get to the free throw line (#345), and their slow pace leads to a high rate of turnovers (#302), but the painful pace also seems to make others more prone to giving it back to them (29th in defensive turnover rate). Last season, American was somehow seventh nationally in effective field goal percentage, but finished just 326th in scoring offense (and 223rd in offensive efficiency).

The slow pace allows Brennan to virtually ignore his bench, which has played just 19.2 percent of the team’s minutes this season, easily the fewest in the country. After senior Kevin Panzer went down with an ankle injury against Columbia last month, Brennan has basically used six players. In an overtime win over La Salle, his bench got just 10 minutes, all from junior Marko Vasic. Against Stony Brook, Brennan would have made only one sub in the first half if John Schoof hadn’t picked up his second foul in the final seconds. And yet American has not had a player foul out this season. If you’re currently scratching your head, you’re not alone. “Their system is so hard to play against,” Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell said. “We wanted to speed them up a little bit and I think we kind of did, but it’s such a slow pace anyway. It’s a grind game, I told our guys this would probably be a one-possession game, and every possession is like gold when you play like that.”

peewee gardner

Pee Wee Gardner Runs the Nation’s Slowest-Paced Offense

There is a method to Brennan’s apparent madness, of course, and it leads directly to his mentor, Pete Carill, whom Brennan played for from 1991-94 (and for whom he was later a Princeton assistant). In fact, Brennan sought and received Carril’s help last season in trying to get his team to understand the intricacies of the system. Soon afterward, the backdoor cuts and extra passes leading to three-pointers that would have looked just as home at the height of Carill’s success in the late 80s and early 90s started flowing.

The Eagles are led by senior point guard Pee Wee Gardner, who has his own meandering story, having played for two seasons previously at Stephen F. Austin. He and the coach there, Dan Kaspar, didn’t see eye-to-eye, so he transferred to play for Jeff Jones at American. By the time his transfer year was over, both relevant coaches had left for other schools, with Jones to Old Dominion and Kaspar to Texas State. But despite SFA’s run to the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32 last season, things obviously worked out for Gardner, a preseason all-Patriot pick. In many of the team’s longer possessions (unofficially, 15 of American’s 50 possessions last Tuesday reached 10 seconds or lower on the shot clock), the ball is in Gardner’s hands, yet he’s turned the ball over only 29 times and is shooting 48.6 percent from the field even though some of those shots have surely come out of late-clock desperation. “It’s still not an easy offense to run,” Gardner said. “We still have a lot to improve. In any offense, things aren’t going to go well all the time. Me, Jesse [Reed], and Schoof kind of know the situations. The other guys didn’t play so much last year with Tony [Wroblicky] around. We’re getting there, though. We’ll be alright.”

Gardner, Schoof, and Reed — last year’s leading scorer — all average double figures in scoring between 11.0 and 13.0 points per game. None of the three will come out of games unless they are in foul trouble or injured (they rank first, third and fourth nationally in minutes played this season). American hopes to get Panzer, a Nevada transfer, back relatively soon, but has gotten good play out of 6’11” rim-protector Zach Elcano, who blocked three shots and held Stony Brook star Jameel Warney to just 10 points (four of them very late). In the end, Brennan and the Eagles are just trying to do what 350 other teams are: put the ball in the basket a little more often than the other team. And they’re doing quite a nice job of it, thank you. “We’re just trying to win like everyone else,” Brennan said. “We have great support on our campus, our students, alumni, etc. That happens when you win.”

Ray Curren (4 Posts)

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One response to “Playing Their Way: On American’s Slow Pace”

  1. […] KenPom #: 20.9% offensive rebounding (347th) (And, of course the 351st and dead last tempo, but that’s subjective […]

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