- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Tom George, American University's athletic director, is feeling a sense of emptiness this week after the Eagles were spurned by the National Invitation Tournament selection committee Sunday night.

The NIT is where the best of the rest land in the postseason, and the landing is hard or soft, depending on where a basketball program sees itself in the Division I food chain.

The Eagles (18-12) were one play and 20 seconds from advancing to the 65-team NCAA tournament in the Patriot League championship game against Holy Cross on Friday.

George and the Eagles spent the next two days hoping to be included among the NIT's 40-team field. George talked by telephone Saturday with the NIT to stoke the flames of interest in AU but detected a drop in enthusiasm from his prior conversation with the NIT last week. He then spent Sunday night by his telephone at his home in Silver Spring, waiting for a call that never came.

"I don't know what the difference was with them, because the only way we were going to the NIT was if we lost in the final game," George says. "We put on a good show. We had a full house. We had a magical season. What more do you want?"

George believes the Eagles fell victim to college basketball's ratings percentage index, an imprecise formula that rates each of the nation's 327 Division I teams. The Eagles, despite winning the Patriot League's regular-season championship, finished with an RPI of 170.

Although the NIT expressed a desire to reward regular-season winners from one-bid conferences who stumbled in their tournaments, most of the NIT's field was rated in the top 110. Also noticeably absent from the NIT's field: 21-8 Vermont, the regular-season winner of America East.

"I think the NIT missed an opportunity with us," George says. "Here you get George Mason playing host to St. Joseph's, which is a big yawn locally, especially with Maryland playing in the NCAA tournament later this week at the MCI Center.

"St. Joseph's probably is disappointed to be in the NIT. If we had gotten an NIT bid and we were playing George Mason, we would have had shrieking fans and alumni calling for tickets. That would have been a good storyline. We bring our crowd over there, they have their crowd, and you probably have an exciting atmosphere. Imagine if you could have had us playing Virginia and Jeff Jones returning to where he once played and coached. You're telling me that doesn't generate some interest."

Instead, George is trying to come to terms with the closed-door thinking that left the Eagles on the outside.

He desperately wanted to pull once more from the suddenly burgeoning throng following the Eagles' fortunes. He soaked up the spirit inside packed Bender Arena on Friday, leading the cheers at various points in the game, reveling in the scene he imagined after taking the job last October.

"The NIT would have been a wonderful salve for our hurt," George said. "I don't think a lot of the schools look at it like us. Arizona State is 14-14. We all know who they are. Do you think they're feeling good to be in the NIT? I think there are a whole lot of schools that go, 'Darn, we're in the NIT.' This was my first time around with the selection show, and I felt just awful watching it."

George felt worse after the NIT passed on the Eagles.

"To get what we had last Friday, and to get it after being on the job only four months, that's what I wanted," George says. "I'm a happy guy in that regard."

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