Basketball around the Beltway: Duo in the District

WASHINGTON — After taking a break from their near-annual series last winter, American and Howard meet on Saturday, Dec. 3, one of the many dress rehearsals for two schools in one-bid leagues.

For AU and HU, RPI and SOS are simply excess filler in alphabet soup when the calendar turns to March — as the only way either school gets to the NCAAs is to win its respective league tournament.

American is just two years removed from taking on Wisconsin in the Round of 64, while Howard has its best chance in a quarter century to be playing in the big dance.

Yes, you read correctly.

It’s taken some time, but coach Kevin Nickelberry has Howard poised to make noise this winter, picked to finish first in the MEAC preseason poll. A far cry for a school that not only hasn’t had a winning season since 2001-02, but had also lost at least 20 games for 11 straight years. Senior guard James Daniel III led Division I in scoring (27.1 points per game) last winter, but injuries (primarily to James Miller who was averaging 15 points per game before going down in December) butchered the Bisons’ hopes of building off the previous campaign’s 16-16 mark. Daniel and Miller are just two of the top eight players in Howard’s rotation returning, so depth and experience should not be an issue. Six-foot-10 Marcel Boyd (9.9 rebounds per game) and 6-foot-7 Solomon Mangham (5.6 boards per contest) both enjoyed breakout junior seasons despite each missing time with injuries. That’s a nice presence down low to let both Jameses go to work outside.

The schedule begins, ominously enough, in Ann Arbor on Friday evening against NCAA Tournament hopeful Michigan. The nonconference slate reads like a who’s who of area teams: in addition to their home game against American, the Bison visit Georgetown, George Washington, Maryland, VCU and Old Dominion. The MEAC schedule was kind this winter: South Carolina State was picked to finish second and Hampton was ranked third in the preseason — and Howard only has to face each school once during the regular season.

American enters year four under coach Mike Brennan, and even though he didn’t recruit his current seniors, Brennan knows they’ve been instrumental to his success. “They bought into what we’ve been doing right away,” Brennan said. “Having a group do that immediately and having them over the course of four years was just as helpful as being able to go out and recruit your own guys who’d fit with what you’d want to do.”

The Eagles have a major identity change with Jesse Reed, after exhausting opposing defenses throughout his career, has finally exhausted his eligibility. One wouldn’t be surprised if the other Patriot League teams took a collection for Reed’s graduation present — the 6-foot-5 guard from Saltsburg, Pennsylvania, led AU in scoring each of his final three years and was the team’s top rebounder his last two seasons with the Eagles.

In theory, Delante Jones will have to step into the void, but the sophomore from Chantilly will attract plenty of defensive attention. “To be honest, I think he’ll have a tough year as people know about him and he’s our leading returning scorer,” Brennan said. “But he’s one of the hardest workers and one of the more coachable guys I’ve been around. He’s made a lot of strides in the preseason.”

Serbian center Andrija Matic, George Washington transfer Matt Cimino and freshman Mark Gasperini each bring 6-foot-10 frames into the post. Do they rebound by committee or does one of the bigs become the lead dog?

The schedule begins with a bang: an opening night date with No. 25 Maryland on Friday, Nov. 11 before they visit Texas A&M. There’s also a December duel at defending National Champion Villanova.

“Those games usually sound better in recruiting in June … than they do two days before you’re going to play Maryland.” Brennan said. “It’s a great opportunity for those guys and they’re ready to compete. You try to put together a schedule that prepares you for league play.”

American is picked to finish fifth in the Patriot League, a conference whose tournament they won in Brennan’s first year and whose title they played for in his second season at the school.

“It’s a great league; everybody knows each other. Obviously I think they got it right with the top four teams … those are the older teams this year.” Brennan said. “But the league has shown there’s not a big discrepancy between who finishes first and who finishes last.”

How well this team gels around Jones could determine where AU winds up …

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