- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2002

Last season the American men's basketball team almost accomplished something it had never done before, coming within a minute of its first NCAA tournament bid before succumbing to Holy Cross in the Patriot League final.

Ever since, the sting of that loss has been a reminder of how close the Eagles were to being a part of March Madness.

"I think about it every day," senior point guard Glenn Stokes said. "It makes you want it so much more."

Stokes will get another chance to lead the Eagles into the postseason starting tomorrow when AU visits Missouri to begin one of the most anticipated seasons in school history. Three starters return from last year's 18-12 team that captured the Patriot regular-season title in the program's first season in the league.

The Eagles will rely on an experienced backcourt to match or improve upon last year. Stokes, a former junior college star who averaged 9.4 points and 2.9 assists, will run the offense. Senior Steven Miles is AU's top returning scorer after averaging 11.8. Junior Andres Rodriguez started 20 games a year ago and averaged a team-high 4.3 assists.

"I think that really is our strength and is something we're going to have to lean on heavily early on," coach Jeff Jones said. "They do an awful lot for our basketball team. Beyond ball control, they're going to be counted on to score and keep guys honest with their outside shot."

The frontcourt is a different matter. Center Patrick Doctor, the Patriot League's Player of the Year, is gone along with his 15 points and six rebounds a game. So is forward Keith Gray, who started 28 of the Eagles' 30 games a year ago.

Their departures have left Jones with little experience in the post, though the Eagles' frontcourt players are versatile. Matej Cresnik, a 6-foot-8 junior, is a capable 3-point shooter, and 6-foot-5 Jernavis Draughn is an aggressive defender who can cover point guards and power forwards.

Jones said sophomore Patrick Okpwae, a native of Cameroon, might be the most talented of American's forwards but is also the least experienced of the bunch. Lithuanian sophomore Raimondas Petrauskas is perhaps the Eagles' most physical player but is still adapting to the American game.

The four had 12 minutes of Division I experience combined last season, which Jones acknowledges will be a factor early in the season.

"I think any success that they experience will be done by committee," Jones said. "I don't think it's any one or any two guys that will have to play well. We realize they're going to be up and down. We just want to see them progress."

Despite the losses inside, AU was still picked to finish second in the Patriot's preseason rankings behind the Eagles' nemesis from last season, Holy Cross. The Crusaders have won the last two league titles and nearly upset Kansas in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament.

AU, which lost all three meetings with Holy Cross last season, believes it can dislodge the Crusaders this year.

"I think it's still between us and Holy Cross," Miles said. "We have a lot of new players in the league. A lot of teams have made some big moves. I'm biased but I still think we're the best team in this league."

It's a substantial change for a program that was a doormat for so long before Jones' arrival. For most of the 1990s, basketball was an afterthought and losing seasons the norm at the Northwest D.C. school. Now the prospect of an NCAA tournament berth has the campus buzzing.

"People actually know who we are now," Miles said. "I remember getting here two years ago and most freshmen didn't know we had a basketball team. Now people are kind of upset we don't have a home game until early December. It's an exciting time. People are excited to see us play."

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