American University Coach Gary Williams spent most of his recruiting time searching for a centerpiece for his basketball team: someone tall and strong who could play the pivot and free 6-foot-6 Juan Jones for what he does best -- play power forward.

So far, Williams has not found that true center. But if Jones can play consistently this season, as he did last night in AU's 86-67 season-opening victory over Whittier at Fort Myer, Williams will be less worried about his center position.

Jones had 20 points and 13 rebounds, both career highs, and dominated the area around the basket when it mattered.

Whittier (2-2), a Division III college, outscored AU in field goals, 31-30. But the Eagles made 26 of 36 foul shots; Whittier made five of nine.

Still, the biggest difference was Jones, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds in the first half. His previous high point total was 12.

"One game doesn't make a season, but Juan shows he has the ability and instincts to be a good inside player for the next two years," Williams said. "Juan works as hard as anyone in practice and I'm happy to see him rewarded for that."

Equally impressive for the Eagles was junior guard Ed Sloane, who scored 24 points on 11-for-14 shooting from the floor.

The evening was not all joyous for the Eagles. Mark Nickens, AU's superb all-court player, did not start for the first time in 21 games, following a tragic week for him and his family.

Nickens' grandfather died Wednesday, and his father died Sunday night. The Eagles weren't sure until 30 minutes before game time that the former Mackin High School star would be in uniform.

Nickens replaced freshman Steve Nesmith five minutes into the game and helped the Eagles move from a 12-7 deficit into a 26-13 lead.

"It's incredible that Mark, with all this family crisis, could come into the game and play so well," Jones said. "We all look to Mark for leadership, anyway, and when he came in like that, it just made us feel closer."

Jones, from McKinley Tech, is a muscular 200 pounds and an excellent jumper.

"I'm still hoping we find that true center so I could play forward," Jones said. "But I want to show people that even though I'm small I can neutralize the true center by beating him to a certain spot on the floor, jumping and constantly thinking."

The Eagles' zone press bewildered Whittier, which had trouble getting the ball to half court without 5-8 point guard Greg McNair. He sat on the bench much of the game after picking up three early fouls.

During one stretch, Whittier failed five of six times to get the ball to half court. Before the Poets could solve the press, AU had outscored them, 36-7, en route to a 47-32 halftime lead and an easy victory.