Three weeks ago, American University's season seemed hopeless but now the Eagles find themselves in the regular season Colonial Athletic Association race for the first time, a turnaround that has unexpectedly made tonight's 7:30 game against George Mason at Bender Arena a key contest.

The Eagles' recovery has been sparked by the play of senior point guard Mike Sampson. He may be missing tonight, though, for an unusual reason: jury duty.

Today, Sampson will miss his third straight day of classes in a trial expected to go to the jury this afternoon. If deliberations last into the night, the Eagles will be missing their diminutive tower of strength.

"In addition to being our leading scorer, leading us in assists and steals and usually guarding the other team's top scorer, he is also serving jury duty," said American Coach Ed Tapscott, who possesses a law degree. "The next thing you know, he will be entering the Super Tuesday primaries."

Tapscott, whom some considered in occupational jeopardy after four straight losing seasons and a 7-12 start to this one, has been through enough adversity since October that Sampson's call from the District court system just seemed typical.

Before the season was two months old, five of Tapscott's frontcourt players were out or hobbled with injuries. The team had trouble adjusting to a five-man offense after having Frank Ross carry the load for four years and in midseason, to minimize mistakes, the Eagles slowed up the pace -- only to have that strategy backfire.

With players such as Ron Davenport and Clarence Ingram recovered, AU now can run end to end and play aggressive man-to-man defense. As a result, the Eagles are 13-12 overall and 8-4 in the league, tying George Mason for second place, one game behind Richmond.

If Sampson gets to play tonight, a big factor will be what effect this unusual week will have on him. Sampson, who is averaging 14.8 points per game and yesterday was named CAA player of the week, said he had little choice in serving jury duty.

"I had been called two other times and asked for a later date," he said. "Last Friday, I got a message on my answering machine saying I had to show up Monday, and it stressed it would be very beneficial for me to show up this time. I decided I better go because I didn't want the marshals coming after me."

The 6-foot, 163-pound Sampson, who became a weightlifting phenom this past year, hasn't backed down from many things lately. He has displayed the ultimate determination to succeed after a frustrating junior season in which he was benched so Ross could move from wing to point guard.

"I knew I had to prove something," he said. "Last year was the worst time of my life. I had never sat on a bench before. I didn't understand it. I still don't understand it."

Sampson's relationship with Tapscott has improved remarkably, but not nearly as much as Sampson's all-around skills, particularly his shooting, which was never better than 41 percent his first three years.

"I would get security guards to let me into Cassell gym at odd hours -- like 11 or 12 at night -- and I would just shoot 200 or 250 shots by myself," said Sampson, who is shooting 47 percent this season. "When you have the motivation, it is not hard to do things like that. I wanted to go out on a good note this season and prove I could play."

In that respect, the verdict is in: Sampson can play. But, tonight?