Seasoned Eagles Could Cook Up a Win - American Players, Coach Say Experience in Last Year's Tourney Will Help This Year's Squad

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 16, 2009

The Tavern, the prime gathering place in the heart of American University's campus for the announcement of the NCAA tournament pairings last night, was jammed with players, the pep band, students just returning from spring break, alumni and cheerleaders.

Half the field had already been unveiled when senior guard Derrick Mercer, sitting on a couch with teammates in front of a giant television, turned to Frank Borden and Jordan Nichols.

"I was talking on the side with them and said: 'You know what? I've got a feeling we are getting Villanova,' " Mercer said. "Jordan felt it as well. And when Villanova popped on the screen, I was like, 'Here we go!' "

The Eagles did, indeed, hear their name called next -- the No. 14 seed in the East Region paired with the third-seeded Wildcats in what will amount to a home game for Villanova at Wachovia Center in Philadelphia.

American has one of the better travel arrangements in the 65-team field: a 136-mile bus ride from 3,100-seat Bender Arena to the 21,600-seat arena on South Broad Street. But that's nothing compared with the itinerary for Villanova, whose campus and primary home arena, the Pavilion, is only about 20 miles away.

The Wildcats also hosted three Big East home games at the much-larger Wachovia Center this season, beating Syracuse and losing to Louisville and Georgetown; those three games were the maximum number they could play at the arena and remain eligible to play there in the NCAA tournament. Villanova has played 10 previous NCAA tournament games in Philadelphia in program history, including three years ago.

"My initial reaction was that it was a pretty good matchup for us actually, because they are a guard-oriented team just like us and they're not the biggest team," senior guard Garrison Carr said. "But then my other reaction was, 'Man, we have to go to Philadelphia to play Villanova.' "

Last year, as a No. 15 seed in their NCAA tournament debut, the Eagles were sent to Birmingham, Ala., to face second-seeded Tennessee and were within one point with about six minutes left before losing by 15. This time, the Patriot League champions (24-7) will carry a 13-game winning streak -- second longest in the nation behind Memphis's 25 -- and a measure of postseason experience into their first-round contest.

AU will attempt to become just the second Patriot program to win in the NCAA tournament in the league's 19 years. Bucknell upset Kansas in 2005 and Arkansas in '06.

"Having a year under our belt, it's going to help across the board," AU Athletic Director Keith Gill said. "The excitement is the same as last season, but we're going to go there to win a game this time. We were happy about last year, we gave a good effort. Now we've made it back and we want to make some noise."

Despite Villanova's pronounced home-court advantage, the Eagles were far from disappointed with the matchup. The Wildcats are not particularly tall, an important factor for an AU team that starts two forwards -- 6-foot-8 Brian Gilmore and 6-5 Nichols -- and guards Borden (6-4), Carr (5-11) and Mercer (5-9).

The Wildcats' biggest starter is 6-8 senior Dante Cunningham, a Silver Spring native who started high school at St. John's (D.C.) and finished at Potomac (Md.). He is joined by 6-7 senior Shane Clark, but like the Eagles, Villanova starts three guards, including Herndon High graduate Scottie Reynolds.

"They don't have a dominant low-post guy," Eagles Coach Jeff Jones said. "Cunningham can go in there, but they have a lot of different guards who can do things. I don't want to make it sound like they don't have a front-court presence -- Cunningham can score inside -- but the way they are built, it's probably a good thing because we are not particularly big."

The Eagles hope to also take advantage of their veteran roster. With seven seniors, American was rated the third most-experienced team in the country.

"Last year we were a little in awe that we made it and playing a number two seed," said Carr, who is the program's career leader in three-pointers (296) and needs to make four to tie the Patriot League record. "Now that we are going back, we are more mature and we have higher expectations for ourselves."

Jones believes his team has learned from last year's maiden experience, saying: "I don't think we were intimidated by Tennessee; it was the big stage that got to some of our players. We are going to talk about it and get it out. Sometimes when you bring it up and discuss it, it becomes less daunting. Everything about the game itself is the same; it's just that the spotlight is a little brighter."

Eagles Note: About 100 tickets will be made available to students beginning at 4:30 p.m. today at the Bender Arena box office. The balance of seats allotted to the university will be distributed to season ticket holders, alumni, staff and players' families. General tickets to the games in Philadelphia are sold out.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company