- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2006

As usual, American University’s postseason hopes will come down to a little more than a week in late February and early March.

With an NCAA at-large bid out of the Patriot League almost out of the question for the Eagles, they would need to win the conference tournament to earn the league’s automatic NCAA bid, which also would be its first. And with 99.7 percent of its scoring offense returning from last season, that’s not out of the question.

“Make no mistake about it, we’re aware [we have to win the tournament],” said senior guard Andre Ingram, AU’s leading scorer the past three seasons.

Intimate Bender Arena could hold the key. The Patriot League tournament uses the campus site of the higher-seeded team in the early rounds of its tournament through the championship game.

“It’s pretty safe to say it’s better to be at home,” said coach Jeff Jones, entering his seventh season as AU’s coach.

The league’s coaches picked the Eagles to finish third behind Bucknell and Holy Cross.

“The rest of the league is good, but looking at our team, I think we should win the league,” said 6-foot-10 center Brayden Billbe, who averaged 8.1 points and a team-leading 4.8 rebounds last season. “We have a lot of talent. We’re bringing back everyone. As long as we keep working hard and playing well, I don’t think anything can stop us.”

Ingram, a three-time All-Patriot League selection, fuels the optimism. Point guard Derrick Mercer was named Patriot League rookie of the year last year. Toss in Billbe, 6-11 center Paulius Joneliunas (6.3 points) and shooters Arvydas Eitutavicius (10.2 points) and Linas Lekavicius (6.9 points) and the Eagles have quite a few workable parts.

AU is coming off a disappointing 12-17 season, but the Eagles went 7-7 in league play. The season started with six straight road losses — including a 40-point stinker to George Mason in the BB&T; Classic.

“I did a lousy job of scheduling a year ago,” Jones said. “I put our kids in a very difficult situation.”

This summer Jones made amends by taking his team on a four-game tour of Belgium and France. The Eagles went 3-1 playing pro teams. Jones was able to experiment with his personnel, but most importantly the team was able to bond.

“We’ve been together the whole year, but we didn’t really know each other as well as we could have outside the court,” Billbe said. “We’re in France, and we were kind of forced to be together because there wasn’t a lot of English-speaking and there was some animosity towards Americans, so we were together a lot.”

Added Eitutavicius: “In terms of basketball, we got better because we played those old, veteran European players.”

The players are hoping it set them up to finally take the next step.

“Those preseason polls do put pressure on us,” Mercer said. “Now, we’ve got to prove to these people that we are the No. 1 team in the Patriot League. We’re going to got out there and let our game do the talking.”

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