Basketball Around the Beltway: District duo

Can American rise back to former heights and make the NCAA Tournament again? (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — American and Howard universities used to play every December and it was always a nice way for fans to get a chance to see two of the underappreciated programs in one fell swoop. Usually the matchup in was the only December game in D.C. for at least one of the two schools that year. Could we be seeing one or of these schools fighting for an automatic bid come March?

American is coming off a 17-16 season that saw the team slump late (losing eight of their last 12 regular season games) before bouncing back in the Patriot League Tournament. Gone is the nucleus of the 2014 NCAA Tournament team, as John Schoof, Pee Wee Gardner and Kevin Panzer played their final games for AU last March. That means more will be expected from senior swingman Jesse Reed, who led the Eagles in scoring and rebounding last winter.

“It’s going to be a challenge for him because he’s a scorer,” coach Mike Brennan says. “He has to do all of these other things. The tough plays, the gritty stuff. But he also still has to be looking to score. We’ve got to make sure that he continues to be aggressive offensively.”

Junior forward Charlie Jones is expected to be coach Brennan’s primary force in the paint, while transfers Paris Maragkos (George Washington) and Leon Tolksdorf (UConn) will bring plenty of size to the lineup. How much or little the four-member freshman class contributes remains to be seen.

“All four guys did a lot of good things that make me feel they’re definitely going  to be good players in the future,” Brennan says. “It’s just, how long does it take for each player to acclimate himself to college basketball?”

The season tips off Friday at Rhode Island, one of nine road games played over the first two months. AU was picked to finish seventh in the 10-team Patriot League, one where Lehigh and Bucknell are expected to contend for the conference crown. If Brennan’s bunch comes together, they do play four of their last five regular season games at Bender Arena.

Howard failed to win 20 games last winter, but the school’s 16-16 record was its first non-20 loss campaign in over a decade. Coach Kevin Nickelberry has built the Bison into a MEAC-factor, as witnessed by the team being picked to finish fifth in the conference’s preseason poll. They even received a first place vote! In a recent world where Howard was among the perennial downtrodden, this is more than a baby step — it’s a giant leap for Nickelberry’s program.

The Bison did lose one-third of the “James Gang” with James Carlton’s graduation, and they’ll miss his team-high eight rebounds per game. Juniors James Daniel and James Miller need a post presence to balance their perimeter power, and 6-foot-10 forward Marcel Boyd might be the answer.

Unlike previous seasons where Howard would go on monthlong road trips, the Bison actually welcome a few teams to Burr Gymnasium in the nonconference season. Harvard played in the NCAA Tournament while William & Mary made the NIT last March; both drop by the District this winter. The MEAC season begins early with a Dec. 5 date at preseason favorite North Carolina Central. The Bison also wrap up the season with games at preseason #2 Hampton and preseason #3 Norfolk State.

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