The disappointment of not being selected for the NCAA basketball tournament is now behind American University, and Coach Gary Williams and his players, including Boo Bowers, have set the NIT championship as their goal.
That chase will begin tonight when the Eagles (24-5) invade Centennial Hall in Toledo, Ohio, to meet Toledo (20-9) in an 8 p.m. first-round NIT game (WEAM-1390). The winner will oppose tonight's Duquesne-Michigan victor either Sunday or Monday. AU will not have a home game in the tournament.
Williams said Bowers, the school's all-time leading scorer, is about 75 percent recovered from a knee injury.
"Boo is running pretty good and should see some action if the situation presents itself," said Williams, selected as the East Coast Conference and Mid-Atlantic Region coach of the year. "The players are glad to see Boo back. He definitely won't start, but if someone gets in foul trouble or we need someone for a lift, he'll play."
The Eagles lost to St. Joseph's, 63-60, in the ECC tournament title game Saturday night and the automatic NCAA bid went with it. By taking the ECC regular-season title with an 11-0 record, including a win over St. Joe's, and posting the most victories in the history of the school, AU felt sure it would gain an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney.
"We have gotten over the disappointment and we are ready to play again," Williams said. "Our goal is to win as many games as we can and go as far as we can."
Toledo, which tied for the Mid-American Conference regular-season title and lost in the tournament to eventual champion and NCAA-bound Ball State, has posted five consecutive 20-victory seasons. The Rockets lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year to Florida State, and bowed in the second round two years ago to Notre Dame.
The top two players for Toledo, 6-foot-7 stringbean forward Harvey Knuckles and 5-11 guard Jay Lehmans, played little last week in the tournament because of injuries. Knuckles, who led the conference in scoring with a 21.5 average, has a pulled hamstring and is running at three-quarters speed, but is expected to start. Lehmans, third in scoring (10.2) and second in assists (4.0), has a bad knee and bruised thighs and is not expected to play.
The other Rocket starters are sophomore forwards 6-7 Mitch Adamek (13.3, 8.8 rebounds) and 6-6 Dan Boyle (8.0) and freshman guard Tim Reiser (9.4), the team leader in assists. Either John Green or Brad Reiger, both averaging less than three points per game, will start in place of Lehmans.
Bob Nichols, ranked 18th among the nation's coaches in number of wins, has not had a losing season since he became coach 16 years ago. He said he felt the same anxieties at being overlooked for the NCAA tournament as Williams and is also looking forward to having success in the NIT.
"We're happy about the NIT and we expect a tough game from Au," Nichols said. "I understand they don't have much height, like us, and are a good baseline-to-baseline pressing team with good jumpers."
The Eagles will probably come out with their full-court press, hoping to grab a big lead early. All-ECC performer Mark Nickens (15.1, 5.2), the leader in steals; Ed Sloane (14.0); Robin Hoey (13.6), and reserve guard Gordon Austin, who is only 10 assists from setting a school mark, are the back-court thieves for the hustling Eagles. Dennis Ross and Juan Jones, both 6-6, are the key rebound men.
Williams said, "Toledo is pretty physical under the boards despite its lack of size and depends on its muscle inside.
"They have a pretty good team," Williams said. "But we're ready to play. There's no reason to change anything we've done all season. Besides, we didn't have time."