- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2008

AMERICAN

Last year: 21-12 (10-4 Patriot League)

Coach: Jeff Jones, ninth season, 125-113

Returning starters: G Garrison Carr, G Derrick Mercer, F Bryce Simon

Top player: Mercer may be small (5-foot-9), but his value to Jones’ Eagles could not be greater. The point guard averaged 12.4 points and 4.03 assists a game during American’s magical run to the NCAAs. Mercer, a Jersey City, N.J., native, is regarded as one of the better mid-major players in the country.

Outlook: After upsetting Maryland, winning the program’s first Patriot League crown and earning a tournament berth, it’s up to Jones to produce a worthy encore. Another conference title - the Eagles were tabbed as the preseason pick to win the Patriot League - would work well, as would upsets over local rivals Georgetown (Dec. 6) George Washington (Dec. 17) and Maryland (Dec. 22). With three starters back and last year’s third-leading scorer joining the starting lineup, Jones could be back in business at Bender Arena.

BOWIE STATE

Last year: 21-8 (13-5 CIAA)

Coach: Luke D’Alessio, 10th season, 184-83

Returning starters: none

Top player: Duke Crews, a former Rivals.com five-star prospect, couldn’t cut it at Tennessee, and Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl cut him loose last May. The 6-7, 235-pound forward should be a good fit in Bowie, where five graduating seniors left D’Alessio in a talent vacuum. Crews, originally from Hampton, Va., started 18 games as a freshman in 2006-07 and logged a double-double during an injury-shortened 2008 season in Knoxville, Tenn.

Outlook: With Crews and fellow transfer Cassin Diggs, who butted heads with the beasts of the Big East at Pittsburgh for two years, D’Alessio’s rebuilding project should have a strong foundation despite the loss of three double-figure scorers. The backcourt will suffer early - guard Corey Stevens averaged only 4.9 minutes a game last season - but a bumper crop of junior college transfers should boost the Bulldogs.

GEORGE MASON

Last year: 23-11 (12-6 CAA)

Coach: Jim Larranaga, 12th year, 207-131

Returning starters: F Louis Birdsong, G Dre Smith, G John Vaughan

Top player: Vaughan averaged 12.3 points as the third offensive option behind Folarin Campbell and Will Thomas a year ago, and his scoring figures to rise this season. But his greatest value might come at the defensive end, where he routinely locked down the likes of Virginia Commonwealth´s Eric Maynor and Northeastern´s Matt Janning a year ago. Both are back and playing for CAA title contenders - but so is Vaughan.

Outlook: The final cornerstones of the 2006 Final Four team - Campbell and Thomas - are gone, but George Mason long ago established itself as one of the CAA´s top teams regardless of personnel losses. Vaughan remains a defensive stopper, while Smith is a dangerous perimeter option who went 10-for-10 beyond the 3-point line in a game last year. Darryl Monroe returns after missing last season following toe surgery and will fortify the frontcourt, while sophomore Cam Long should emerge as a factor at point guard. Look for freshmen Andre Cornelius and Ryan Pearson - both of whom played extensively in George Mason´s exhibition game - to establish roles for the defending CAA tournament champions.

GEORGE WASHINGTON

Last year: 9-17 (5-11 Atlantic 10)

Coach: Karl Hobbs, eighth year, 123-82

Returning starters: F Rob Diggs, F Damian Hollis, G Xavier Alexander

Top player: Diggs led the Colonials in virtually every statistical category last season as a junior. The 6-9, 202-pound Brandywine native was second in the A-10 in offensive rebounds and was fourth in the conference in field goal percentage.

Outlook: Hobbs has his leading scorer (Diggs), 3-point shooter (guard Noel Willmore) and defender (forward Wynton Witherspoon had 30 steals in 2007) back from last season’s disappointing squad. Gone are team troublemakers Maurice Rice, Cheyenne Moore and Miles Beatty, who were dismissed from the team last spring. The senior core of Diggs, Willmore and Witherspoon should help ground a group that is picked to finish fourth from the bottom of the A-10. Its early season schedule — which includes games against area rivals Maryland and American and a trip to Honolulu for the Rainbow Classic in late December - and a competitive conference slate will render GW’s postseason hopes all but obsolete.

HOWARD

Last year: 6-26 (3-13 MEAC)

Coach: Gil Jackson, fourth year, 22-70

Returning starters: G Randy Hampton, G Eugene Myatt, C Paul Kirkpatrick, F Adam Walker

Top player: Hampton, a senior swingman, returns after averaging 11.6 points a game in an injury-plagued junior season. The homegrown talent (Dunbar High School) suffered a concussion and missed significant time during the Bison’s woeful 2007 campaign. The transfer from Drexel should be even more effective if he can manage to stay healthy.

Outlook: Jackson’s team has nowhere to go but up with a more experienced squad returning for 2008. Myatt, who last year averaged 14 points, should team with Hampton to provide some much-needed frontcourt firepower, and an infusion of talent from newcomers Calvin Thompson and Chris McHenry has Howard fans hungry for more wins. The Bison start the season in the spotlight when Oregon State and coach Craig Robinson - the brother of first lady-to-be Michelle Obama - visit the nation’s capital.

NAVY

Last year: 16-14 (9-5 Patriot League)

Coach: Billy Lange, fifth year, 50-66

Returning starters: G Chris Harris, F Kaleo Kina, F Romeo Garcia, C Mark Veazey

Top player: Kina, who has started since the day he stepped on campus in Annapolis, enters his senior year looking to improve on a historical junior campaign. The 6-4 swingman became just the second Navy player to amass 400 points, 100 rebounds and 100 assists in one season during 2007.

Outlook: The good news? Navy welcomes back four starters from a team that recorded the program’s first winning season in seven years and finished second in the Patriot League in 2007. The bad news? The one graduate is honorable mention All-American Greg Sprink, who left Navy last spring third in program history in points. Kina and Harris should benefit from the addition of point guard O.J. Avworo, who spent last season on the bench after transferring from the University of Idaho. A stellar showing in December’s BB&T Classic would be another momentous accomplishment for Lange, the 2007-08 Patriot League coach of the year.