- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2008

One of the first congratulatory e-mails American University president Neil Kerwin received after the Eagles won the Patriot League championship and earned their first NCAA tournament bid last week came from Alan Merten, his counterpart at nearby George Mason University.

“He said he hoped that we would play each other in the tournament,” Kerwin said during a Selection Sunday party at the Northwest campus yesterday before learning that AU, seeded 15th, would meet No. 2 seed Tennessee in Birmingham, Ala., in an East Region first-round game Friday.

Although the chance of George Mason and AU meeting on the court is extremely slim (George Mason is seeded 12th in the East), a certain symbolism was attached to Merten’s good wishes.

In 2006, George Mason, located in Fairfax, made it all the way to the Final Four in Indianapolis. The Patriots wrote one of the most improbable and inspirational stories in the history of college basketball, proving that a program lacking a national reputation from a so-called mid-major conference not only could compete with the big boys but beat them, too.

“We were all pulling for Mason,” Kerwin said. “I think they demonstrated that a long shot can go a very long way.”

Now there is AU, also coming out of the area and given little chance. But the Eagles are a far longer shot than George Mason was two years ago.

Still, they harbor the same big dreams.

“You can find motivation where you want to,” eighth-year AU coach Jeff Jones said. “I certainly think that for mid-majors, whether it’s George Mason and their great run or Bucknell and the Patriot League being able to win games in two different NCAA tournaments. Sure, that can serve as motivation as an example of if you believe and if you work hard, good things can happen.”

Bucknell was seeded ninth in 2006 when it beat Arkansas in a first-round game. But the bigger victory occurred the year before, when the 14th-seeded Bison shocked Kansas, a No. 3 seed, in the first round.

In the next game, against Wisconsin, Bucknell led with nine minutes remaining before losing by nine. It was a short journey for the upstarts.

George Mason, on the other hand, had staying power.

“The thing that everybody remembers about Mason is that they made it to the Final Four,” said Jones, a former player and coach at Virginia. “Our hope and focus is that we can prepare and be ready and give [Tennessee] a tussle.”

The biggest difference is that George Mason, as opposed to Bucknell and now AU, came out of the Colonial Athletic Association as an 11th seed. The CAA is considered a true mid-major conference and is probably at least one competitive notch ahead of the Patriot League.

AU, in fact, belonged to the CAA before switching to the Patriot League in 2001, a move that displeased some of the program’s boosters.

The Eagles are facing steep odds, a “David and Goliath” scenario, Jones said.

Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, only four No. 15 seeds (out of 92) have won a first-round game against a No. 2 seed — Hampton over Iowa State in 2001, Coppin State over South Carolina in 1997, Santa Clara over Arizona in 1993 and Richmond over Syracuse in 1991. Each of the four lost in the second round.

George Mason, on the other hand, played sixth-seeded Michigan State in the first round. After beating the Spartans, the Patriots defeated third-seeded North Carolina. Then, in essentially two home games at MCI (now Verizon) Center, they beat seventh-seeded Wichita State and top-seeded Connecticut in overtime.

Although some might argue, the Patriots, led by three talented seniors, were likely a better team than AU (21-11) is now.

Then again, as George Mason itself proved, the “best” team doesn’t always win.

“I think what we learned from that is that anybody can beat anybody once you’re in the tournament,” said junior guard Garrison Carr, AU’s leading scorer. “It’s March Madness. Anything can happen.”

But no matter what happens in Birmingham, this is a big deal for AU students and alumni.

A boisterous gathering of students, university staffers and family members joined the team for the “viewing party” at Mary Graydon Student Center. Athletic director Keith Gill served as emcee, leading the crowd in cheers of “Let’s Go Eagles.”

AU was one of nine teams shown on CBS during its tournament selection show, and the Eagles didn’t have to wait long. The pairing with Tennessee was flashed on the big screen early in the broadcast. The players, seated on couches, bounded to their feet as a big cheer erupted, officially ending a long wait for Jones.

“It’s a great feeling to be able to see this particular group of guys mold and develop,” he said. “I’m happy for them, but I’m also proud to be part of what they’ve been able to accomplish.”

At least American avoided the dreaded “play-in” game.

That honor falls to two area teams, Baltimore’s Coppin State and Mount St. Mary’s, located in Emmitsburg, Md. The schools will play tomorrow in Dayton, Ohio, for the 16th seed in the East and the right to play North Carolina, the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, on Friday in Raleigh, N.C.

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