American University starts a 6-foot-6 center who averages fewer than four points and six rebounds per game.
The "power" forward is a lanky, 6-6 battler who relies on his long arms for garbage points and rebounds. The sixth man, who was moved into the starting lineup when Boo Bowers injured his knee, is a natural guard but has emerged as the team's leading rebounder. The starting guards make up a combination magic act, public relations firm and entertainment center.
This strange mix has gone 9-0 in the ECC East Division, has won 19 of 23 games and has started folks thinking about postseason tournament play for the first time since the 1972-73 team earned an NIT bid.
American can take a major step toward a tournament appearance tonight when it plays St. Joseph's at 7 p.m. in the Palestra in Philadelphia. The Hawks are 9-1 in the ECC and a victory for either team will clinch a tie for first.
Eagle point and guard Robin Hoey, the teams's self-proclaimed spokesman, offers a reason for AU's success: "We're a bunch of hustling dudes.
"The key to winning is play hard and play hard every time we go on the court," said Senior Hoey, second on the team scoring (14.0), steals and assists. "Without Boo, everyone has to carry the weight. We have some underrated people on this team, like our center, Juan Jones. He's not a kareem (Abdul Jabbar), but he gets the job done. He's tough and doesn't back down from anyone.
"We lost our first two games badly and then lost Boo seven games later and people said we were dead. People would ask if there was life after Boo. Of course there is.There has to be. Don't misunderstand me, we need Boo. But until he comes back, we have to do it."
Bowers, the leading scorer in the school's history and a probable high NBA draft pick, recently had the cast removed from his sprained knee and his teammates are hopeful the 6-5 senior will return in time for the ECC playoffs next week.
Bowers was averaging 25.5 points and 7.8 rebounds. But since his injury, AU has won nine of 11, including games over Ecc rivals La Salle and Drexel. In winning more than 16 games for only the second time since 1959, AU has assured itself of a home court game in the first or second round of the tournament. Victories over St. Joseph's and Temple this week would give AU a bye in the first round and a home game in the second.
"The team has grown up a lot. They were willing to play roles and pay the price it takes to win," said AU's third-year coach, Gary Williams. "We know what we don't have and we know what we have to do to stay in the games. It takes five guys to do it.
The Eagles, averaging 80 points per game, have run opponents ragged with a nonstop fast break that usually begins at the base line.
"We don't get too many rebounds so our break begins when we take the ball out," Williams said. "We look to run each time we touch the ball. Even if we don't get a shot, we force te team to work to stop us. We feel endurance is one our strengths and we try to wear teams down." Hoey and his back court mate, 6-3 Ed Sloane (14.5 points per game and 41 steals), along with Bower's replacement, 6-5 Mark Nickens (14 points, five rebounds a game, 55 steals), and the "garbage man," 6-6 Dennis Ross (10 points and five rebounds), have used their speed to harass opponents into numerous ball handling erros. In the last nine games, opponents lost the ball 198 times.
"We're just a scrappy team, sort of reminds me of the old Mackin (D.C.) teams I was on," said the all-Met Nickens, who transferred to AU from TCU two years ago. "We're really executing well as a unit, especially now when we need to. We proved to a lot of people we could win without Boo and when he comes back we'll be even tougher."
The players agree the loss of Bowers forced each player to improve.
"Basically, I had to play I knew I could but when Boo was in the lineup, there's wasn't much left for me," said Ross, whose scoring and rebounding figures have risen significantly in the last 10 games. "I don't like the term 'garbage man,' but I guess that's what I am. It seems the bigger teams are, the harder and move aggressive we play. It doesn't bother me to look out there and see guys much taller. Besides, there's nothing we can do about it."
AU has also had good play from reserves 5-11 guard Gordon Austin, who leads the team in assists, 6-6 David Ridley (Gonzaga) and 6-7 Fernando Aunon (Stuart High). Austin has been on a tear lately, scoring points in bunches in addition to running the AU offense. "That's it, everyone has done his part," Williams said. "None of us knew how we'd react when Boo went down. But we didn't change anything. We didn't have time. Each player improved his game and contributed."
Bowers, the team's No. 1 cheerleader now, is glad to see the team has proved a lot of people wrong.
"People said we'd lose when I got hurt but they wrong," said Bowers, rebuilding the muscles in his leg through therapy. "I know we'd win 18 to 20 games. We have good players. After we came back to beat Lafayette, the fellows started believing in themselves. We have a lot of versatility and that has helped us."
Sloane, who has been playing with a sore thumb, said the best reward for the miles he and his teammates have run since mid-October would be a berth in the NCAA tournament or NIT.
"That's what we've worked for and we have a good chance," Sloane said. "We're a close group and it shows on the court."
Hoey, who has scored 74 points in his last four games, including the winning basket in the La Salle game, says AU might be only a 500 team were it not for a solid supporting cast.
"The assistant coaches worked with us, the volleyball coach (Frank Fristensky) put us on this vigorous exercise program and the fans didn't wait until we won 12 straight to get on the bandwagon," Hoey said "But the fellows are great. We have no quitters. And guess what? We haven't peaked yet. But we will soon, just watch us." CAPTION:
Picture 1, Gordon Austin; Picture 2, Helping American soar to 19-4 record have been Mark Nickens, as Robin Hoey gathers in ball; Picture 3, Dennis Ross. Washington Post Photos