- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2002

For an institution that has students enrolled from 50 states and 140 countries, American University might have a little more difficulty than most schools unifying its diverse student body and immersing itself in March Madness. Add in the fact the Eagles have never been to the Division I NCAA tournament, and the postseason is foreign territory to AU students and alumni.
"A lot of the people on this campus really don't have any knowledge of the NCAA or the Patriot League or basketball in general," said the Eagles' Glenn Stokes. "But there is a lot of talk going around. People are learning quick."
And just as quickly, the university is working to generate support for the Eagles when they play host to the Patriot League championship game tomorrow against Holy Cross at Bender Arena possibly the program's biggest game ever. AU students recently received e-mails and voice mail recordings from coach Jeff Jones encouraging them to attend the game, though spring break starts this weekend. The athletic department is sending out flyers throughout Northwest and to its alumni, trying to entice some of its 30,000 graduates living in the area to attend.
All this effort is intended to maximize the support for a program that has righted itself after years of futility. Jones has engineered the Eagles (18-11) to the nation's second biggest turnaround this season, behind only Bob Knight's Texas Tech team. A program that has not been to the postseason in 20 seasons is suddenly on the cusp of playing on college basketball's biggest stage.

Jones in control
The 2000-01 season, the Eagles' last in the Colonial Athletic Association before jumping to the Patriot, was hardly an ideal beginning to the Jeff Jones era at AU. Some players struggled to adapt to Jones' style, and a 5-4 start deteriorated into a disaster as the Eagles lost 16 of their last 18 games, including contests in which they scored 33 and 32 points.
"Patience isn't something coaches have in abundance," Jones said. "Last year I wanted [success] 'now.' But sometimes, it takes some time. … Maybe [last season] makes us appreciate success more."
Jones overhauled the roster, replacing three seniors and five players who left the team with 10 new players some of whom sat out last season after transferring. This season actually started worse than last, with AU going 2-6, but following a 28-point loss Dec.20 at Vanderbilt, Jones and the coaching staff had meetings with each player. With previous teams, Jones said, he would allow his players to find their roles themselves, but with the Eagles losing, he had to designate responsibilities and cut playing time for some.
In their next game, the Eagles scored an upset at Florida State, a triumph Stokes said was their most important of the regular season. Though they lost at home to Wagner the next game, AU won the regular-season Patriot title with a 10-4 league record.
The basketball squad reflects the student body's diversity, with 15 players from Puerto Rico and six countries, including Cameroon and Slovenia. Jones has molded a group composed of nearly half transfers (four from junior colleges) into a cohesive unit that has a maturity the team lacked last season. Success has brought the team together.
"We understand there's a lot of mature players on the team, and guys understand what it takes to be a team," Stokes said. "That was a key ingredient to us jelling within the first two weeks of us meeting each other."

Doctor is in
Maybe the most impressive coach-to-player relationship Jones has forged is with forward Patrick Doctor, named Patriot League Player of the Year this season.
Easily the most talented AU player, Doctor was suspended for the first 11 games of last season for academic reasons. He returned for the final 16 games to average 16.1 points.
Doctor came into this season out of shape and without the tough mentality Jones wanted him to have, plus a knee injury. So after what Jones considered a sub-par effort from his star in the first nine games, the coach didn't start him for the next seven games as a motivational ploy.
"When I first found out I was benched, [Jones] said, 'Don't get down, we can work through this,'" said Doctor, who also struggled with the loss of a cousin, Thomas Martino, who died in early February. "Up until now, he's been a great part of it. He's always pushed me, always gets on me when I'm not doing what I'm supposed to be doing."
Doctor came around. In the final 11 games, he averaged 17.6 points, allowing the Eagles to finish strong and win the league's regular-season title.
On Sunday, Doctor contributed a career-high 33 points and 14 rebounds to lift the Eagles over Lafayette and a berth in the league championship game.
Jones told Doctor to try to emulate the play of George Evans, George Mason's dominant power forward who last played in 2000-01, and "make the plays that make the difference in the game. … He responded."

Patriot leap
Originally, AU's jump to the Patriot League similar to the Ivy League in that it heavily stresses academics was greeted with disdain by players, who perceived it as a step down in competition from the CAA. Doctor, among others, considered transferring.
But this season AU posted its most victories in 12 seasons, and its coaches, players and administrators have embraced the switch not surprisingly, since the team is winning. But the ratings percentage index lists the CAA 11th and the Patriot 27th out of 31 Division I conferences. AU finished 3-13 in the CAA and in last place last season.
Said Steven Miles: "It's a real good opportunity for our team to make it to the NCAA tournament. That's the way we're approaching it. We didn't hold our heads about the switch. The Patriot League has been a greener pasture."
The stakes are at a different level. Just two of the eight institutions in the Patriot (Holy Cross is the other) offer a full complement of scholarships for basketball. AU's transfers are the exception to the norm in the league as well; programs such as Holy Cross and Bucknell do not recruit transfers (Holy Cross because the players likely wouldn't qualify academically; Bucknell because the university does not grant money to transfer students). But it has worked for AU.
"I don't think it bothers anybody at all," Doctor said. "The fact that we're winning so much, that takes the place of anything."
And for AU, it's as simple as that.
"It's completely night and day from last year, [when AU students] just figured we played basketball because we were a little bit bigger than everybody else," Miles said. "Now everybody knows our faces and names. It really feels good."


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide