- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

With a cast of holdovers from the previous coaching staff and a host of transfers, American University and coach Jeff Jones brushed aside years of men's basketball futility this season by winning the Patriot League regular-season title.

Now the Eagles, in the unfamiliar position of being the hunted team, can make a run at their first NCAA tournament appearance in more than 40 years by winning the Patriot League tournament that begins today at Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro.

AU captured the regular-season crown, but the 2001-02 Patriot season was replete with competition. Save for bottom seeds Lehigh, which opposes American today, and Navy, just four games separate the first-place and sixth-place teams.

"Anything can happen in the men's tournament there's so much parity," said Army assistant coach Marty Coyne.

Much has happened this season for AU, most of it in the way of success. Jones has molded a roster with 10 players in their first year with the program into a cohesive and confident group that does not dwell on previous shortcomings. Jones wanted to change the culture of losing at AU, which went 7-20 last season, by bringing in players who would have a better understanding of the game and a greater commitment to winning.

Players like starting point guard Glenn Stokes, a 25-year-old junior college transfer, and starting two-guard Andres Rodriguez, a transfer from Louisville, have proved valuable additions. And mainstays like forwards Patrick Doctor (yesterday named the league's Player of the Year) and Keith Gray, the two players who have spent four years as Eagles, also have provided stability. The result yielded a 16-11 record, the Eagles' most victories in 12 seasons and one of the biggest one-year turnarounds in Division I.

All this is uncharted territory for the coaches and players, who are dealing with sudden success at the school.

"A program like AU hasn't experienced a great deal of success," Jones said. "They've had more than their experience of bad things. Now we have to handle the good and focus on the next challenge."

That is the Patriot tournament, which features four quarterfinal games today and two semifinals tomorrow. The semifinal winner with the highest-remaining seed will play host to the championship game Friday.

Navy enters the tournament as the No.7 seed after losing seven of its last eight games, with its only victory against Lehigh. The Midshipmen (10-19, 5-9) finished second in the Patriot last season and started league play 3-1 this season, but their porous defense brought on a quick fade from the top. The Mids face 2001 Patriot tournament champion Holy Cross, the No.2 seed, in the first round.

"I'm really hopeful to play better basketball," Navy coach Don DeVoe said. "We started and finished the season losing. In between, we had some good stretches. We haven't beaten a good team all year."

American has had some notable wins, the largest a late December upset at Florida State, which players said became a game the team could point to as a measure of their potential. The Eagles come into the tournament on a bit of a down note after losing to Holy Cross by 24 points in the season finale. That doesn't faze this team.

"Nobody has their heads down everybody's trying to bounce back real quick," Stokes said. "There's a real team chemistry. That's what I hear last year's team didn't have."

Said Doctor: "When we play at our best, we're hard to beat."

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