Tournament title or bust: American, Navy and Howard Men’s Basketball Preview

The NCAA Tournament is a long way from the draconian days where if you didn’t win your conference tournament you were missing out in March, but for some leagues that remains the case.

The Patriot League and MEAC have yet to put an at-large team in the field of 68, so for American, Navy, and Howard, the first week of March means even more. Each team also hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament for some time.

American has the shortest drought, having won the Patriot League Tournament as the No. 2 seed in 2014.

They almost made it consecutive trips to the NCAA’s like they did in 2007-08 but came up short as the No. 6 seed the following March. Since then they’ve lost in the semifinals once, the quarterfinals three times and the first round twice. But the Eagles return eight of last year’s nine returning scorers back on campus.

“Normally you get a bunch of new guys and you have to teach everything-they have to go through a learning curve,” American’s Coach Mike Brennan said. “But when you have older guys on your team they can watch older guys and see how things are done.”

The older guy this team is built around is senior guard Stacy Beckton Jr.

“He’s a quiet kid naturally but he does so much on the court. I prefer guys that lead by example, more so than verbally,” Brennan said. “Whatever we’ve asked him to do he’s done. He guards guards, he guards centers, he guards everybody. He’s going to have to be more aggressive offensively this year, but not too much as we’ve got him surrounded by pretty good players.”

Beckton scored 18 points Tuesday in the season-opening win over Marist.

Among the four-player freshman class, only Elijah Stephens saw the floor in the regular season opener. The Waco, Texas, product notched five points, four rebounds, and six assists in his AU debut, giving those at Bender Arena a preview of things to come.

“The impact that he makes on games and practices has been phenomenal so far,” Brennan said. “He’s just real fast and quick. Pesky on defense, gets other guys shots on offense.”

The Eagles were picked to finish fifth in the Patriot League Preseason Poll. After a winter of playing in pandemic-mandated divisions (AU was in the PL South), they’re looking forward to another competitive winter.

“It’s a great league top to bottom every year. You never know who’s going to be on top and who’s going to be in the bottom-the first place team is usually 12-6,” Brennan said. “Obviously Colgate’s been terrific the past few years, but I’d say the last 10 or so years we’ve had multiple champions and that just speaks to how competitive the league is.”

Before league play, American has road tests inside beltway at Georgetown next Tuesday and at Howard Dec. 4, while making the short commute out Interstate 66 to visit George Mason Dec. 21.

Navy was picked to finish third in the Patriot League this winter, and Coach Ed DeChellis’ team has already made their mark on the young season with a 66-58 win at No. 25 Virginia.

It was their first victory over a ranked opponent since they beat No. 9 Syracuse in the 1986 NCAA Tournament behind future Hall of Fame center David Robinson. Even though the Cavaliers missed nine of their final 10 shots of the night, this was far from a fluke: The Mids did not trail for the final 34 minutes of regulation, outrebounding UVA by five and turning the Cavaliers over 14 times.

“I just thought we’re a team that was really focused in our preparation, really focused throughout the game,” assistant coach Emmet Davis told 1500 am and the Navy Radio Network after the victory. “And we just played extremely hard. We had 10 guys play tonight and every guy that came in contributed in some way, shape, or form.”

The Midshipmen return seven of their top eight scorers from last year’s 15-3 team that won the Patriot League Regular Season but lost in the quarterfinals to a Loyola team they went 3-0 against in January and February.

That was their highest finish in the conference standings since 1997, when Don DeVoe’s team led by Hassan Booker advanced to their first of two NCAA Tournaments (their last appearance in March Madness was in 1998).

Gone is leading scorer Cam Davis, but senior John Carter Jr. picked up the slack by tallying 19 points in the win over the Cavaliers. He also shot 5-8 from three point range as the Mids made over 50% of their shots from outside the arc.

Their ACC barnstorm continues when they host Virginia Tech Friday in the Veterans Classic and next Monday at Louisville before settling in to a pre-Patriot League slate that includes local like George Mason and Towson.

Howard hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1992, and the program hasn’t had a winning record since 2002. They’ve come close: the 16-16 team in 2014-15 lost three of their last four games while the 2018-19 squad fell to 17-17 by dropping a CBI game at Coastal Carolina.

Head Coach Kenny Blakeney enters his third year.

“I think the big thing we’ve tried to put in place is our personnel to a point where we have the young men in our program that can execute and be successful in our system and in our university,” Blakeney said. “That’s been sort of the things that we’ve focused on: ‘How do we get the right people on the right bus?’ So that’s been our big push over the last couple years.”

The Bison began the season by beating UDC 87-59 Tuesday followed by a 118-54 rout of Regent University Wednesday, holding their foes to 36% shooting and 29% from three point range while turning over the Firebirds 16 times and the Royals 30 times.

There’s no doubt that defense will be the difference if this program is to improve.

“We put a lot of emphasis on that side of the ball in our practices and filmwork and things that we do as a program,” Blakeney said. “For the way we want to play our defense has to be something that we hang our hat on-it has to be our calling card.”

The schedule will get tougher as they go the road to face nine of their next 12 foes, including No. 4 Villanova and Georgetown. The Bison have been picked to finish fifth in the MEAC Preseason Poll, but with an active transfer portal preseason picks may hold even less value.

“There’s been so much movement in our league,” Blakeney said. “We really don’t know what these other teams have: not sure what Norfolk State has, not sure what N.C. Central has, not sure what Coppin has, not sure what Morgan (State) has. And those teams probably are thinking the same thing about us.”

Butch Beard was Howard’s Head Coach when the MEAC co-Regular Season Champions punched their NCAA Tournament ticket by topping Delaware State 67-65 in Norfolk.

Beard stayed for two more seasons where the Bison went a combined 20-35. Six coaching regimes have come and gone (seven if you include interim Willie Coward for the final 19 games of 1999-2000) with three winning conference records, one winning overall record, and zero NCAA appearances in the 29 years since.

But Kenny Blakeney feels the ingredients of something special are here, and is confident he can turn a sleeping giant into a contender.

“We’re in a great city. An unbelievable city that loves basketball and it’s one of the larger media markets in the country,” Blakeney said. “I look it as why can’t we be a Gonzaga, why can’t we be a St. Mary’s.”

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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