American Buzzing Over Shot At Title
Friday, March 14, 2008
In cities across the country, alumni are planning get-togethers to watch the game. Students are cutting short spring break to return to campus. Faculty and staff have stopped by the athletic department to snag tickets. Players are being inundated with calls and text messages.
Duke or North Carolina? Hardly.
It's happening at American University, where the men's basketball team will face Colgate this afternoon at Bender Arena in another attempt to win the Patriot League championship and earn the first NCAA tournament berth for either the men's or women's program.
"It's a huge event to bring the AU community together, something to rally us and get behind," said Athletic Director Keith Gill, a former Duke football player and associate AD at Oklahoma who arrived at the Northwest Washington campus last summer.
Without a football team, "everyone is behind this sport," Gill added. "For us, it really doesn't get any bigger than this."
The top-seeded Eagles, who at 20-11 are enjoying their most successful season in 18 years, have been close before. In 2002, their first season in the Patriot League after years of disappointment in the Colonial Athletic Association, they lost to Holy Cross in the title game at Bender Arena. In the following two years, they fell in the final on the road against Holy Cross and Lehigh, respectively.
But this season's final has a different feel. The Eagles have won nine of 10 and, with a Navy team that beat them twice in the regular season having been eliminated in the quarterfinals, they are the genuine favorite. They have defeated Colgate seven consecutive times, including a pair of eight-point victories this winter, and are 8-0 against the Raiders in Washington.
Nonetheless, AU has issues to confront. Starting forward Bryce Simon, who blended a tough inside game with a solid outside shooting touch, will not play because of a knee injury. The third-seeded Raiders (18-13) have won six straight and limited Bucknell to 10 first-half points in the semifinals.
Then there is the matter of AU's unglamorous history.
"What has happened in the past and the fact that AU has not been to the [NCAA] tournament, all that stuff, we've just got to be ready to play," said Coach Jeff Jones, who took Virginia to five NCAA tournaments in the 1990s and is in his eighth season at AU.
Even with their classmates away on break, the players suddenly have found themselves in the local spotlight. A team media day Wednesday attracted more cameras, microphones and notepads than every regular season home game combined.
A sellout is expected today in an arena that, since the endline bleachers were reconfigured two years ago, has only about 3,000 seats. Temporary bleachers have been added on the concourse for today's game.
"People are showing us a lot more attention than we are used to. Friends, family, they are happy for me, they are excited to watch me on TV," said junior guard Garrison Carr, a three-point specialist from Bellevue, Wash.
"They're asking, 'What if?' I am answering it the best I can, but really I'm trying to stay focused on the goal and let everyone know we haven't accomplished anything yet."
Forward Travis Lay, a Rockville native and Bullis graduate, grew up a University of Maryland fan and said he was well aware of AU's negligible history.
Though the Eagles have reached the Patriot final and joined Georgetown and George Mason in the discussion about local teams and the NCAA tournament, "it's kind of crazy," said Lay, one of only two seniors on the roster. "There is more to be done."
AU Notes: The university will hold a fan festival in the tunnel beneath the sports center beginning at 2:30 p.m. In anticipation of road closures to accommodate the pregame activities, school officials are encouraging fans to arrive early. Doors to the arena will open at 3:15, 90 minutes before tip-off. . . . Colgate is making its first appearance in the championship game since 1996, when it won a second straight title.