New year, new American; Northeastern’s weirdest game yet

The American University basketball team made a New Year’s resolution: to be awesome in 2014.

You might be skeptical, thinking that there’s no way a team could become awesome just by resolving to be so. But to that, I ask, have you ever made a resolution to simply be awesome? I bet you haven’t. And there seems no better explanation of the Eagles’ performance this season:

American_Basketball_2013-14_Pomeroy_rankingMany people picked American to finish last in the Patriot League this season, and through the end of 2013, that was a reasonable prediction. The Eagles finished December at 4-7, with all four wins coming against bottom-50 teams, not a profile that screamed “title contender.” But after their 86-56 dismantling of Boston U. on Wednesday night, not only are the Eagles a contender — they’re the clear favorite for the Patriot League title, at 7-0 in league play.

American fired a warning shot on Jan. 2, handing Bucknell its first non-Lehigh league loss at home in nearly four years to open conference play; the Eagles followed that up with a 69-54 win at Holy Cross. But even as the Eagles kept surging up the Pomeroy rankings with road wins at Colgate and Lehigh, it felt like BU — the established Patriot League favorite — would stand in their way.

Five minutes into Wednesday’s game, the Terriers led 13-2 — and then the hosts scored a dozen consecutive points to re-take the lead. American led by 10 at halftime, and from there, the rout began; over the final 35 minutes, the Eagles outscored BU 84-43.

The Eagles can’t count on repeating their 11-for-14 three-point shooting performance anytime soon — they shot a pedestrian 34% from long range entering Wednesday’s game — but almost all 14 attempts were wide open, as BU’s zone defense was suckered inside to guard the nation’s best two-point shooting team. Still, American’s 86 points were somewhat fluky; it hadn’t even scored 70 against another decent team this season.

What wasn’t fluky was the Eagles’ defense, which smothered Maurice Watson, Jr. (3-12), Dom Morris (2-8), and D.J. Irving (3-8). American has shut down lots of teams’ primary threats, including Bucknell’s Cameron Ayers (7-21, 88 Offensive Rating), Holy Cross’ Dave Dudzinski (4-11, 94 ORtg), or Loyola’s Dylon Cormier (3-13, 75 ORtg). (Lehigh’s Mackey McKnight, who scored 23 points with 10 assists in a two-point loss, remains the largest exception.)

Resolutions are easy to keep in January; the real test comes as spring approaches and the New Year’s high rubs off. But if American wins at 6-1 Army on Saturday, it will be in a very strong position — not only will it be 8-0 in conference play, but it will have passed all but one of its toughest road tests (the remaining one coming Feb. 19 at BU). At that point, the Eagles might not need to be awesome to win the Patriot League title — they might need to merely be good.

==

Northeastern’s weirdest game yet: In the first half of their game at preseason CAA favorite Towson on Wednesday night, the Huskies — who have often struggled offensively this season — scored a blistering 40 points on 28 possessions. At that point, I mentioned that if Northeastern didn’t score at all in the second half, it still might not be the Huskies’ worst offensive game of the year.

Apparently, Northeastern took that as a dare.

The Huskies scored nine points in the first 18 minutes of the second half, and somehow, a 21-point lead turned into yet another Northeastern nailbiter. With a three-point lead heading into the final possession, Zach Stahl fouled Jerrelle Benimon on a second-chance three-pointer, and the Towson star made all three free throws. The Huskies seemed headed to overtime — and, more likely than not, their ninth close loss of the season — until David Walker drilled a 30-footer at the buzzer, handing the Tigers their first CAA loss. Basketball is weird.

Speaking of weird basketball… Harvard has been one of the nation’s most consistent teams all season, having taken down every opponent save Colorado and Connecticut with hardly a scare. But in its non-conference finale at Florida Atlantic, the Crimson fell into a 20-6 hole it never really got out of, losing 68-53. (This happened despite 11 points and nine rebounds from Zena Edosomwan, the rookie’s best game yet.) Wesley Saunders returned from injury but didn’t look like his old self, shooting 3-14 from the field; he wasn’t much worse than his teammates, as the Crimson shot 23 percent with only a pair of threes.

#2BidIvy had been on life support for a while, but it pretty much became a mathematical impossibility with Harvard’s bad loss Tuesday. If the Crimson wins the Ivy League title, this loss won’t be a big deal, maybe costing it a seed line or so. But it’s the 14-game tournament or bust now, and if Harvard plays like the team that got blitzed at FAU again — instead of the team that took care of business throughout the first half of the season — it won’t have an easy path back to the Big Dance.

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