For two hours on Sunday, American University guard Gordon Austin watched the De Paul-Notre Dame game on television, waiting for the announcement that his 24-5 club would be awarded a bid to the 48-team NCAA basketball tournament. It never came.
"After they went through the first three regions, I knew we weren't going to get invited because I couldn't see them shipping us out to the West," Austin said yesterday. "I was disappointed. So very disappointed."
Austin's anger, fears and frustrations were compounded when the Eagles were not one of the first 15 teams to receive bids for the National Invitational Tournament. "I started worrying about the NIT at that point," Austin said. "But then I figured that those first 15 must have been the host teams."
Austin was correct and American finally got a phone call. The Eagles will play at Toledo (19-9) of the Mid-American Conference Wednesday at 8 p.m. "I've never been to Toledo," Auston said. "But Cleveland's close by, right? I'm a big Browns fan."
Like Austin, most of the Eagles had gotten over their outrage at not being selected by the NCAA. "I felt disappointment more than anger," said Mark Nickens, the man who stepped in for injured star Boo Bowers 19 games ago and led the Eagles to the best record in the East.
By yesterday, most of the Eagles were beginning to warm to the idea of playing in the school's first postseason tournament game since 1973.
"We're thankful to get to the NIT," Nickens said. "We had the best record in the East. We thought we had proved ourselves and were worthy of a bid and we were all upset. But let's not blast the NCAA."
"It hurt bad," said Juan Jones, AU's 6-foot-6 center. "But I sat down and made myself realize that we were put in a tough position because most of the regular season winners were upset in the conference tournaments, and had to be given the at-large bids. Several teams got hurt by all those upset teams taking the automatic bids."
"Any other year," said guard Robin Hoey, "and we could have made it with this record."
Jones said his disappointment has subsided and he's overlooking forward to playing Toledo. "Overall, it's been a good year. Maybe Toledo (which, like AU, won its regular season title but lost in the conference tournament) feels in the same position we do."
The Eagles still were miffed that three other local schools -- Howard, Maryland and Georgetown -- had received NCAA bids with records inferior to American's.
"I'm tired of having to say 'sorry' and 'excuse us' for winning 24 games," Jones said. "We didn't do it with mirrors or magic. We played good, hard basketball. We'll have a chance to prove it in the NIT."
None of the half-dozen players interviewed yesterday thought the team would have any problem getting ready for Toledo. Nickens attributed that to the team's practical attitude.
"From the very beginning," Nickens said, "we set our goals independent of tournament play. We dealt with everything from a team standpoint. We've kept out same face -- win or lose. That stability helped us get over this disappointment rather quickly, I think. Everyone has been very sensible and practical about this."
"It's a matter of keeping the proper perspective," Jones said. "Don't three wins get you to the final eight in Madison Square Garden?"
"Ever since I was a kid, I've dreamed of playing in the Garden," Nickens said. "Watching the Knicks play those NBA championships games. The Garden is a pretty legendary place. I'd like to wind up the season playing in New York."