- The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2008

BALTIMORE | American finally broke through and earned its first NCAA tournament berth a year ago.

Now comes the tricky part - doing it again.

The Eagles (21-12 in 2007-08), who stunned Maryland in the regular season and later tested Tennessee in the NCAA tournament, were picked to win the Patriot League in a vote of conference coaches and sports information directors. Navy, last year’s league runner-up, was sixth in the voting.

“You’re very anxious,” senior guard Derrick Mercer said at the league’s media day. “You want to get back there and get that opportunity. We played Tennessee, and we played pretty hard, but I think we were more excited about being there. This year, we’re more focused. What we did last year is in the past.”

The best reason to believe AU can do it is its backcourt. Both Mercer and preseason player of the year Garrison Carr, who combined to average 30.7 points a season ago, are back.

The situation isn’t entirely optimistic, though. Senior forward Bryce Simon, who tore an ACL in the Patriot League tournament last year, had a setback during rehab and is out indefinitely. Freshman guard Simon McCormack is just getting into shape after breaking a wrist on the first day of classes, and forward Brian Gilmore is hobbled with an ankle injury suffered in practice Wednesday.

But any discussion about the Eagles returns to the two senior guards and the luxury of retaining six of the eight players from last year’s rotation - at least as soon as Simon can return.

“A year ago, we didn’t know what to expect from Garrison Carr,” coach Jeff Jones said. “We didn’t know what to expect from Jordan Nichols or Brian Gilmore. This year, they somewhat proved themselves a year ago to say, ‘We can do these things and fill this particular role.’ ”

There is nearly as much certainty at Navy (16-14 a season ago), except for one development - the Midshipmen lost league player of the year Greg Sprink to graduation.

Still, eight of Navy’s top nine scorers are back from its first winning season since 2000-01, and the Mids might possess their deepest roster since fifth-year coach Billy Lange’s arrival.

“Our senior class has grown and matured a great deal,” Lange said. “I’m encouraged by our talent and the improvement of our talent. When I compare it, we’re as strong as we’ve ever been.”

While that means the Mids could be a bit underrated in the preseason, where they will fit in a league in flux is unknown.

Holy Cross is coming off an uncharacteristically down year, Bucknell has a new coach and Colgate will be without injured all-league guard Kyle Roemer this season.

That leaves a jumble in the middle of the league. AU, though, seems like a sure contender for another championship run.

“Of all the teams in these rankings, I think they’re the one that’s in the right place,” Colgate coach Emmett Davis said. “I’m not sure about the rest of them. I think they’re definitely the odds-on favorite.”

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