The boys in red couldn’t have imagined this. Back in December, when the AU men’s basketball team finished its nonconference schedule with a record of 4-7, these 16 players (just two seniors among them) and their rookie head coach couldn’t have pictured themselves at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, hustling through one final practice in preparation for a second-round showdown in the NCAA Tournament.
Or could they have? Four short months ago they were dismissed as a bunch of misfits, picked to finish ninth in the ten-team Patriot League. But Wednesday, at the gleaming NBA arena where they’ll take on hometown hero Wisconsin Thursday at 12:40 p.m. eastern, AU players and that first-year coach, Mike Brennan, said they never doubted that they could accomplish incredible feats.
”I didn’t know how it would all work out, but I knew we had talent that other people didn’t really know about,” said senior Tony Wroblicky, the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year.
They know now. About the talent, and about Brennan’s smooth-as-silk Princeton offense, which stresses ball movement, backdoor cuts, and selfless play.
“Coach Brennan’s done a great job of installing his offensive philosophy. He’s definitely got his players at the next level,” said Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan, who’s led the west region’s No. 2 seed to the NCAA Tournament in each of his 13 seasons. “They run that offense better than just about any other team.”
As AU students, alumni, fans, and friends arrived in gray, cold, and wet Milwaukee, the Eagles continued shifting their focus from the stunning season that was to the Herculean task ahead.
The crowd promises to be decidedly pro-Badger tomorrow when 15th-seeded AU takes the court for only its third-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. By comparison, Wisconsin’s 16-consecutive tournament appearances are tied for the seventh longest streak in NCAA history. None of that seems to faze the Eagles, who punched their ticket to the Big Dance by defeating Boston University in Boston on March 12 to claim the Patriot League Tournament title.
“We know we have everybody in that locker room and everybody who made the trip with us,” said junior guard Darius “Pee Wee” Gardner. “March Madness is one of those times when anything can happen. We have to stick to what we do and do the things that we’ve been doing all season. Hopefully we can be the next team to [pull] an upset.”
AU’s cheerleaders and pep band already were in game form when the team practiced in front of the public on Wednesday (admission was free). A few AU diehards—along with some curious Badgers backers—were in the stands for the 40-minute workout.
Reinforcements are arriving. Dozens of students are traveling to Wisconsin from Washington by bus, a 14-hour journey that proves how fired up Eagles fans are for this game. At the Crowne Plaza, the official AU hotel located in suburban Wauwatosa, about 10 miles west of the city, alumni and athletics officials mingled at a reception Wednesday night.
For the players, this is more of a business trip. After boarding a bus on the quad Tuesday following a rousing send-off rally, they took a charter (paid for by the NCAA) from Dulles to Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport, a two-hour flight. Last night, after a steak dinner at Eddie Martini’s, they were in their beds by their 10 p.m. curfew.
Brennan doesn’t have to worry much his players missing bed check. Ever since he was named the 17th head coach in AU men’s basketball history in April, he said he’s had total buy-in from the team.
“Our guys have embraced everything that we’ve asked of them from the very first day that we got here,” he said. “They are the most coachable group I’ve been around. We’ve had awesome leadership from John Schoof, Pee Wee Gardner, and Tony (Wroblicky) from the first day, and the rest of the group followed. Our guys have worked really hard just to be here. ”
Not that they’re satisfied with just showing up. Every player on the roster knows he’ll have to play his best for AU to pull a major shocker and win its first-ever tournament game. They also know it can be done—no one more so than Brennan. Last year he was an assistant coach at Georgetown when the No. 2 seeded Hoyas lost to 15th seeded Florida Gulf Coast in the second round.
“You have 40 minutes (the length of a game), that’s all you’re guaranteed,” said the grizzled veteran Ryan. “Do you want 240 minutes? Well, you’ve got to earn those.”
Tomorrow we’ll see who does.
Follow Mike’s tweets from Milwaukee @americanmagazin