- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The American University basketball team has elected to ignore the unfavorable venue that accompanied its 14th seed in the East Region.

The Eagles prefer to dwell on their long-shot chance to become one of the celebrated underdogs of yesteryear, a George Mason or Davidson, which is the dream of all the little basketball programs at the start of the NCAA tournament each March.

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Their opportunity to be somebody special comes against the Villanova Wildcats at Wachovia Center in Philadelphia on Thursday night, when the Eagles step onto what amounts to the home floor of the opposition.

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That prospect already has been compartmentalized by Eagles coach Jeff Jones.

“You know it’s not ideal,” he said. “But there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re not going to worry about it. Bottom line: We’ve been in this situation before, and I certainly think we will have decent representation from our fans. And I think, if we keep the game close, we’ll be able to win over VCU’s fans to our side.”

Everybody loves an underdog in America, as Jones and Eagles discovered in their meeting with Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA tournament last March. The Eagles won converts as they pushed the Volunteers for much of the second half before losing 72-57.

Jones is hoping that big-game experience benefits his senior-laden team, if not prevents the onset of jitters.

“Last year, a couple of our guys showed some nervousness [in the Tennessee game],” Jones said.

Forward Jordan Nichols remembers the unrest in the pit of his stomach all too well.

“I think all of us were kind of overwhelmed, star-struck in the Tennessee game,” he said.

The Eagles have become more familiar with performing in large arenas after playing in Oklahoma’s Lloyd Noble Center, Verizon Center and Comcast Center this season.

Their assignment against the Wildcats is straightforward enough: Take precious care of the basketball on offense, do not take quick shots and rebound with passion on defense.

That approach promises to shave a considerable amount of time off the clock and cut into the Wildcats’ comfortable margin for error.

Jones has watched enough game tape of the Wildcats to know they like to attack the basket and are physical in the tradition of the Big East. Scottie Reynolds, a Herndon native, provides the Wildcats’ offensive thrust.

His tenacity will draw the defensive attention of Derrick Mercer, the Patriot League player of the year.

Mercer, who is built like a fireplug, sees an opportunity to show that he belongs among the leading players in the nation.

The 5-foot-9 point guard has made a career out of rising above the doubts, of showing that his modest stature is not an impediment. He is embracing his showdown with Reynolds as an audition to elicit interest from the NBA. He drops the names of Earl Boykins and Nate Robinson, tiny players who beat the odds and made the NBA.

“Guarding someone like Scottie Reynolds can help me prove myself,” Mercer said. “I am just happy that we have this chance to show we can play. AU doesn’t get much respect.”

Respect comes to those afterthought programs that orchestrate the improbable.

And it happens every March.

That is the beauty of the single-elimination event.

That also is the hope of the Eagles. They know, deep down, they could not possibly defeat the Wildcats in a best-of-seven series.

But in one game, if the basketball is bouncing their way, they receive a favorable call or two from the referees late in the game and they are able to shift the burden to the heavily favored by keeping the game competitive, the unimaginable is possible.

The Eagles are clinging to that distant prospect, and playing in Villanova’s neighborhood be darned.

“I don’t think anyone is crying about it,” Nichols said.

The crying comes later, striking all but one of the teams.

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