Of the seven Princeton alumni who are Division I men’s basketball head coaches, only one will appear in the NCAA tournament this week — the group’s newest member, Mike Brennan ’94. After spending four years as a Georgetown assistant coach under John Thompson III ’88, Brennan was hired by American for the 2013-14 season, guiding the Eagles to an expectations-defying 20-12 record. Last Wednesday, American won the Patriot League Tournament with a 55-36 victory at Boston University, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Eagles were given a No. 15-seed when the brackets were revealed Sunday; they will face No. 2-seed Wisconsin on Thursday at 12:40 p.m. ET.
Coming off of a 10-20 campaign, the Eagles were picked to finish ninth in the 10-team Patriot League in one preseason poll. They played down to that standard for the first two months, posting a 4-7 nonconference record. But American turned its season around as league play began, beating its first 10 Patriot League opponents and eventually earning the No. 2-seed in the conference tournament.
“In the beginning, it was kind of frustrating … [but] after Christmas break when we came back from California, the game after that, we started to gel. We started picking up our defense, and we started to learn the Princeton Offense really well,” said point guard Darius Gardner, who was named the Patriot League Tournament MVP after scoring 18 points in the title game.
After spending four years as a player at Princeton (two of which ended in NCAA tournament appearances) and seven more as an assistant from 2000-07, Brennan’s philosophy follows Princeton Offense principles rather faithfully. The Eagles play at a deliberate pace and pass incessantly — 66 percent of their field goals were assisted this season, the nation’s highest rate — and they burned Boston University with several backdoor layups in the championship game.
But while its offensive style is eye-catching, American’s calling card is its defense: The Eagles rank among the nation’s top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. American held each of its three Patriot League Tournament opponents to 50 points or fewer, including a masterful title-game performance in which the Terriers, fresh off of back-to-back 91-point performances, scored only 36.
In his first year of coaching, Brennan has leaned on the advice of Pete Carril, his former mentor and the trunk of Princeton’s coaching tree. Carril spent some time with the Eagles in the preseason, saw a couple of their Patriot League games, and spoke with Brennan after American’s semifinal win over Holy Cross. “What we’re doing is all stuff that I’ve learned from him,” Brennan said last Wednesday.
This week, the Eagles will be a heavy underdog against Wisconsin, especially with a partisan crowd likely to fill Milwaukee’s Bradley Center. But anything is possible in March, as Brennan certainly knows — just last year, his No. 2-seeded Hoyas were stunned by No. 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast. This year, he’d like to be on the happier side of a similar upset.