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American Dealing With Heightened Excitement, Expectations

American celebrated its first Patriot League tournament championship last season.
American celebrated its first Patriot League tournament championship last season. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

To measure the impact of American University's first trip to the NCAA men's basketball tournament last season, Athletic Director Keith Gill has monitored a humble increase in season ticket sales, a rise in alumni contributions, and the creation of radio and TV shows geared toward the program.

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Eagles Coach Jeff Jones has observed a heightened awareness of his team on the recruiting trail. Garrison Carr and Derrick Mercer, the dynamic back-court tandem, see it in the reaction of friends back home in Bellevue, Wash., and Jersey City, respectively.

"I don't have to explain we're Division I anymore," Carr said.

But to appreciate the bearing that the Eagles' 2007-08 Patriot League title, the near-upset of Tennessee in a first-round NCAA tournament game and the predictions of a return to the NCAA tournament have had on the school, look no further than, of all places, the pep band.

"I think we've gone from 25 members to 50," Gill said with a laugh. "It just shows that there is a lot of excitement, a lot of interest on campus, and a lot of questions about this season."

The primary question is whether, for the first time, the Eagles can meet grand expectations. After bursting from the middle of the Patriot pack last season, they received 14 of 16 first-place votes in the league's preseason poll, easily outdistancing traditional powers Lehigh and Holy Cross. Their top four scorers are back, though a knee injury to senior forward Bryce Simon could hinder AU's cause.

"It's probably safe to say expectations have changed, although I don't think in any way, shape or form our approach will change or should change," Jones said. "For our team, the big question is: How do you handle success and how do you deal with a little bit of attention?"

The attention is coming from all directions. Gill, hired by AU in March 2007 after serving as Oklahoma's senior associate athletic director, was in Dallas last month for the Sooners' football game against Texas and, upon seeing old colleagues, was quickly engaged in conversation about the Tennessee encounter.

The tournament appearance also is helping raise funds for an athletic department that has enjoyed only a few trips to national team events in its unassuming history. Alumni donations have not risen substantially, "but over time, they will," Gill said. "People take our calls more now. People take us a little more seriously than in the past. [Previously,] you didn't want to call them -- they certainly weren't calling you -- and you didn't always get a return call. At least now, you get a chance to set up more things and talk to people."

Similarly, Jones sees long-term benefits in the recruiting wars. This season's five-man freshman class was largely in place by the time the Eagles edged Colgate in the Patriot League tournament final at Bender Arena and, a week later, were within one point of second-seeded Tennessee in Birmingham, Ala., with six minutes left before losing by 15.

"The [player] pool doesn't change, but people will recognize the name and it might be a little bit to easier to get your foot in the door," Jones said. "Whether that pays dividends, we will see."

The athletic department has not had to wait to see modest gains in areas beyond pep-band enrollment. Last year, the team had only 170 season ticket holders; this year that figure has doubled. A weekly radio show is planned, as well as a periodic coach's show on Comcast SportsNet.

On campus, "Everyone is excited," Mercer said. "It's a different mood. But we also know we need to put last year behind us and look ahead."

AU's schedule does not reflect a team with improving national status. The Eagles are home for just two of their first 12 games and the opener is Friday at No. 12 Oklahoma.

"If you are going to have that kind of schedule," Jones said, "you want to have it with a veteran team."

Just two regulars departed, but both were starters: forward Travis Lay (5.8 points per game) and center Cornelio Guibunda (2.7), who, after graduating, unexpectedly skipped his final year of eligibility to pursue a career in foreign service. Simon's return from knee surgery has been slower than anticipated, leaving the Eagles for the time being without a senior forward who started every game last season until tearing a ligament in the Patriot semifinals.

The offense will be geared around Carr, a 5-foot-11 shooter who set a league record with 135 three-pointers (45.2 percent); Mercer, a 5-9 point guard with shooting and driving skills; and senior forward Brian Gilmore, who likely will move into the starting lineup after contributing 8.9 points and 3.9 rebounds as the sixth man.

"We had a fun season last year, but it's not like George Mason going to the Final Four" in 2006, Jones said. "We have to keep it in perspective."

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