- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2012

Were he inclined to take it easy, Jeff Jones could have enjoyed one of the calmest nights in his coaching career Wednesday.

His American basketball team scored the first 10 points against Navy, needed less than 15 minutes to stretch its lead to 20 and had its leading scorer (Charles Hinkle) outscore the Midshipmen by himself in the first half.

Yet there Jones was, scrutinizing the final minutes of a 69-47 rout at Bender Arena, an outcome that never possessed a modicum of doubt.

The Eagles (17-9, 8-3 Patriot) probably won’t see the struggling Midshipmen (3-22, 0-11) again this season. Navy has lost a school-record 18 straight and is probably headed for a Patriot League quarterfinal date with conference pacesetter Bucknell at the end of the month.

But American might see Holy Cross, against which it suffered a deflating loss just a few days earlier, or another team capable of derailing its season. Perhaps even Army (12-14, 5-6), which plays host to the Eagles on Saturday.

“Coach was stressing that’s how we lost Saturday, not [making] winning type of plays,” Hinkle said.

It’s a pitfall the Eagles remain vulnerable to, even if Jones has a chance to coax his fourth 20-win season in five years as the penultimate weekend of conference play arrives.

It’s a function of few sure things on the roster. Hinkle — who had 16 points before halftime Wednesday as American bolted to a 36-12 lead at the break — is the Patriot League’s second-leading scorer and has reached double figures in all but two games.

The only other player to average 10 points against conference teams is guard Troy Brewer, and he missed time with injuries and only recently cracked the 30-minute mark in a game for the first time in 2012.

Sophomore center Tony Wroblicky managed the first two double-doubles of his career in the past three games. Sandwiched in between was a foul-plagued outing of 12 minutes.

It makes for a slim margin, an issue Jones frequently observes. And the Holy Cross loss served as a reminder to the Eagles of the importance of taking the correct approach.

“For us, if we really compete, that kind of starts everything,” Jones said. “Our defense looks much better, our offense looks much better. I think our guys understand that. It’s a matter of harnessing it more than anything. It’s not a physical thing. It’s a psychological thing.”

Good luck fully understanding it, though. American is a dominant team at Bender (11-0) and has pieced together enough good nights to still have a chance at the Patriot League’s No. 2 seed and the home court edge for two rounds of the league tournament.

The Eagles came out of Wednesday a half-game ahead of Lehigh, which played Bucknell on Thursday night.

“Especially right now, games count more,” Brewer said. “You want to win all the games, obviously, but we don’t have any room for error.”

Jones knows it as well as anyone. Hence his own urgency Wednesday at the slightest sign of slippage in a game essentially decided more than an hour before it ended.

“Some teams — Bucknell for instance — might just be good enough that you have a bad night and a couple guys can step up,” Jones said. “Well, that’s not us. We’ve got good players. When we play together and have a bunch of them playing hard at the same time, we can be a good team.”