After installing college basketball's version of the run-and-shoot offense at American University, new coach Chris Knoche saw his up-tempo format fall flat in the team's first exhibition game. With four guards in the starting lineup, Knoche will have to rely on a pinpoint perimeter game, a crisp fast break and, always, some luck.
"We have some good days in practice," said Knoche, who succeeded Ed Tapscott. "Other days we have mental problems, which lead to bad execution. I'm pleased with the physical effort, but we need to grow some mentally."
Even more growth may be needed after what Knoche himself termed "disappointing" -- the Eagles' 81-74 opening loss to Czechoslovakia's Sparta Club Tuesday night. Rebounding and defense were AU's primary woes: the Eagles were outrebounded by 36-26 and surrendered 37 points -- including 13 of the final 15 -- to Michal Jezdik.
"I thought we were a little better team at this stage of the game," Knoche said afterward. "I need to get on these guys a little bit to be a better defensive team."
Now the regular season looms, including an opening-day date Nov. 27 against UDC, during which the Eagles will try to extend their 15-game Bender Arena winning streak (the exhibition loss to Sparta did not count against the streak).
Then, after the standard December out-of-conference matchups, the Colonial Athletic Association schedule begins in earnest.
Last season's 20-9 record was marred by a stirring, 91-90 double-overtime loss to Richmond in the CAA championship game. The Spiders went on to the NCAAs; the Eagles said goodbye to seniors Ron Draper and Daryl Holmes and went home.
The CAA will be even tougher this year. For one, James Madison has become a scoring machine and already is receiving national recognition. To counter, Knoche says he will also pour on the points.
"We're not going to be Loyola Marymount, but we're going to up the pressure and the tempo," Knoche said. "We still will look for good shots, and have to be able to score in a possession game."
In the starting lineup -- for now -- are guards Brian Gilgeous, Fred Tillman, Chris Rooney and Brock Wortman, along with center Sean Stevens. Wortman is the top returning scorer (14.3 ppg), Tillman the No. 1 returning assist distributor with 62. Gilgeous was a CAA all-freshman selection, averaging 10.5 points, and Rooney added 5.7.
So what of the big men in this new run-and-gun game plan? Knoche received two pleasant surprises in the Sparta defeat. First, 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Craig Sedmak shook off the effects of a dislocated finger by scoring 13 points in 23 minutes. And Stevens scored 13 after getting 23 all of last season.
Senior Ron Davenport (2.6 ppg, 2.2 rpg) will add depth at power forward.
This group must pare down the rebound deficit it rang up against Sparta. Draper (12 rpg) and Holmes combined for 20 rebounds a game last season, and one or the other led the Eagles in rebounding in every regular season game.
Ex-Coolidge guard Byron Hawkins will back up the starting quartet.
"We have a lot of bodies," Knoche said. "We are just going to throw them in in waves and see who's hot. This team will be difficult to cover, but we need to get boards from every position."