NCAA tournament 2014: American draws Wisconsin in West Region first round

Flanked by cheerleaders and the pep band, students and alumni, the American University men’s basketball team gathered at Mary Graydon Center on Sunday evening to learn its opponent and travel destination for the NCAA tournament.

Really, though, the specifics were not going to matter.

The Eagles knew that they were going to be a low seed (maybe as high as No. 14?), that they would have to face a national titan (Villanova, Duke, Kansas?) and that they should brace for an away game (unofficially, anyway) rather than a neutral setting.

The pieces fell into place when the West Region was unveiled.

The No. 15 seed Eagles (20-12) were paired with No. 2 Wisconsin (26-7) on Thursday at Bradley Center in Milwaukee, a mere 78 miles east of the Badgers’ home arena.

“I’m sure they will have a little bit of a home-court advantage, but that is okay with us,” junior guard John Schoof said. “None of us have been to the tournament, so it’s going to be a cool experience.”

Cool, and perhaps a little cruel having to play at a venue that promises to fill with Wisconsin red. (AU’s colors are red and blue, and as the party wound down Sunday, an athletic department official reminded traveling fans to pack blue.)

AU’s previous trip to the tournament provided a similar backdrop: In 2009, the Eagles faced Villanova in Philadelphia — and, as a No. 14 seed, led by 14 in the second half before fading down the stretch.

“We are used to being on the road,” Eagles Coach Mike Brennan said. “It’s definitely a road game.”

Brennan is in his first season in charge but no stranger to AU postseason: He was an assistant on the 2008 and ’09 teams that shook second-seeded Tennessee and then No. 3 Villanova before falling short in the program’s first NCAA tournament appearances.

Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, seven No. 15 seeds have won their opening game — most recently, Florida Gulf Coast last year and Lehigh and Norfolk State in 2012.

Are the Eagles next?

“We have a lot of confidence,” junior guard Darius “Pee Wee” Gardner said. “We believe we can beat anybody if we play our game right.”

The Eagles played right in the Patriot League tournament, culminating with a 55-36 victory at top-seeded Boston University on Wednesday. Wisconsin, though, is a different beast.

“Our defense has been very good,” Schoof said, “but we have to step it up because they are a team that could easily blow us out of the gym.”

The Eagles have conceded 56 points or less in six consecutive games, but the Badgers, Big 10 semifinalists, averaged 73.5 with a power-conference schedule. AU faced a Big 10 team early in the regular season, losing by 11 at Ohio State.

“We have played well defensively,” Brennan said, “but playing a team like Wisconsin, you have to have almost a perfect game to give yourself a chance to be in it at the end.”

The Eagles have held opponents to 41.1 percent shooting and 58.6 points.

“We are going to have to really work on the defensive end to be able to stay in the game,” said sophomore guard Jesse Reed, who said he watched part of Wisconsin’s loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals on Saturday. “If we can play defense like we have been all year and stick to our principles, I think we might be able to give them a good game. . . . Hopefully it will translate from the Patriot League to the big stage.”

The Eagles have already defied expectations, winning the league championship after being picked to finish next-to-last in the preseason.

That is why Sunday’s festivities were as much of a salute to what the team has accomplished as they were about what lies ahead.

Before the CBS show began, AU President Neil Kerwin and Athletic Director Billy Walker rallied the fans. Walker, in his first year, embraced the spirit of the season last weekend, joining the pep band in the second half of a Patriot League semifinal and pounding on the drums.

“I’m excited for our team, I’m excited for our program,” Gardner said. “I’m excited for our school.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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