By his own admission, American University center Juan Jones isn't the most talented of basketball players.
"I'm not your average 16- to 18-foot jump-shot shooter and I never felt I'd be a dominating factor when I transferred to AU (from Allegheny Junior College)," said Jones, who at 6-foot-6 must be one of the shortest starting centers in Division I. "We always had good people here and no one expected me to do much. I was doing all right and there was no pressure on me."
The only pressure Jones felt each night was trying to hold down such players as Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, George Washington's Mike Brown, Tennessee's Dale Ellis, Old Dominion's Mark West and St. Joseph's Tony Costner.
"Every night, it was, 'Here I go again,' " Jones said. "I knew I had to defend players taller and more offensive-minded than I was. When I played against Ellis, I couldn't help but wish I had his talent. He was so calm, disciplined and such a real good player.
"I know I can't outscore Ewing and these guys, but I can let them know I'm there and won't be pushed around. It's a challenge for me to make these guys work."
Very few of the big-name players have embarrassed Jones. "I won't let them," Jones said. "I'm not a physical player, but here I have to be."
Lately, Jones has assumed a new role and Coach Ed Tapscott and his teammates are delighted. AU had lost five of eight games, leading scorer Mark Nickens was trying to shake a shooting slump and Ed Sloane was hobbled by a groin pull. Someone had to pick up the slack. Jones did.
"No one had to tell me I had to take more responsibility or score more points," Jones said. "This could very well be my final year of organized ball and I don't want to feel I held back anything. We're heading down the stretch now and it's all on the line."
And there's another pleasant surprise on the AU team--Fernando Aunon. The junior forward was given a starting berth nine games ago and provided a much-needed lift, offensively and defensively.
"I loved it," Jones said. "Ferdie stepped in to help me out inside."
Because Jones and Aunon have given AU some offense from the front line, the Eagles have turned things around. Before last week's loss to Navy, AU had won four straight games, six of its last seven. Its record is 13-8.
Jones has nearly doubled his point (10.7) and rebounding (8.5) averages while cutting down on his fouls. Aunon, considered a fine shooter, has raised his scoring average to 8.8 and is second on the team in rebounding (4.8) to Jones. Last week, Aunon scored 57 points and collected 27 rebounds to earn East Coast Conference player-of-the-week honors.
"I just needed some time on the court," said the 6-foot-6 Aunon, a star at Stuart High School, but a spot player since transferring from St. Joseph's two years ago. "Usually, I would get five minutes and they expected me to go crazy, score a lot of points. But as soon as I made a mistake, I'd get yanked. Now, Coach Tapscott is letting me play and I feel confident out there. We can't depend on one player, everyone has to pick up the weight."
Tapscott said that had not Jones and Aunon started to play well, "We wouldn't have beaten anyone.
"When everyone was struggling, Juan was our most consistent player," Tapscott said. "We've never been known as having a strong front court, so much wasn't expected from the guys playing there. But Juan's strong and knows he has to work hard to offset his lack of height. We know he can't stop the good player inside, we just want him to make them work for their points.
"Ferdie has come along at the right time, too. Andre (Adams) was starting early but we needed a little more offensive help so we went to Ferdie," Tapscott said. "We haven't overwhelmed any teams with our inside people but we've gotten more competitive."
"We are basically the same team we were last year and suddenly we're playing bad," Jones said. "The last person we want to take the blame is Coach. He's working hard with us. He's done the job. That's why it's important to all of us to get back on the right track.
"We're not only playing to satisfy ourselves but we're playing for Coach, too. This season is close to being over for a lot of us and we want to finish strong."