- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 11, 2009

American coach Jeff Jones’ first day of practice this season was hardly like the past few seasons.

Garrison Carr and Derrick Mercer weren’t in the backcourt. There were freshmen galore. And while instruction is always required, it was particularly needed for a team filled with so many players going through the process of learning the Eagles’ system for the first time.

“For us, it was a new challenge,” Jones said. “We knew a year ago - we didn’t, but we could have just rolled the ball out on the court and been pretty good. This year, every little thing needs to be done over. You have to start at A, and you have to go through Z. Last year, you could bring something up, and you might be able to start at L-M-N-O-P.”

Jones isn’t alone. The area’s mid-major programs are all dealing with an influx of freshmen or the departure of leading scorers - and in some cases, both.

Among AU, George Mason and George Washington, at least one has reached the NCAA tournament each of the past five seasons. Toss in NIT berths, and someone has represented the area in the postseason eight of the past nine years.

That will be a trickier feat - but far from impossible - this season as several programs attempt to climb toward some of their recent peaks.

George Mason is understandably known for its Final Four appearance in 2006, but the Patriots won the Colonial Athletic Association in 2008 and reached the league title game a year ago. But the last on-court remnants of George Mason’s magical run are gone, leaving coach Jim Larranaga with a team that skews young.

Sometimes that’s good, Larranaga said, because of the youthful enthusiasm built into such a team. Such outfits tend to arrive at practice ready to learn and acknowledge they don’t know everything.

The flip side is there is plenty of learning to be done - especially this season with the Patriots welcoming seven freshmen.

“It’s one thing if you have just one freshman,” Larranaga said. “You really just focus on him and getting him ready. But when you have seven, your attention is divided amongst a lot of guys. To me, I’m a teacher, and I enjoy the teaching aspect of college coaching, and I like seeing guys improve, so it’s a fun team for me.”

It’s a similar situation at George Washington. The Colonials have added six freshmen to bolster a program that endured a pair of turbulent seasons in which they didn’t reach the Atlantic 10 tournament. The addition of so many players in significant roles - two started in GW’s exhibition tuneup - suggests the Colonials will deal with the natural ups and downs of a young team.

Jones understands. His veteran-laden outfit won consecutive Patriot League titles, and losing his starting backcourt alone would create enough concern. But the Eagles had seven players depart, and their leading returning scorer (Nick Hendra) averaged 6.3 points a season ago.

“When you lose one really good player, you’re dealing with one thing, and you’re looking for somebody else to stand up,” Jones said. “Our situation is losing seven guys. That’s huge because you’re not just looking for one or two people to move up the totem pole.”

Navy, coming off a 19-11 season, doesn’t face the massive personnel changes American does. But the Midshipmen must figure out how to replace the points lost with the graduation of Kaleo Kina - who last year emerged as a prolific scorer after Greg Sprink’s eligibility ran out a season earlier.

There are obvious possibilities, notably guard Chris Harris and center Mark Veazey, though coach Billy Lange acknowledges there’s no way to know for certain who a team’s leading scorer will be. But like so many other local schools, the Mids will count on inexperienced players to assume complementary spots in the rotation.

“The way Kaleo did it and the volume with which he did it and even with Sprink, it was never like we sat down and created in a laboratory this masterminded concoction of ‘This is the way it’s going to work,’ ” Lange said. “It never happened that way. I think our guys have worked hard enough, and they understand what’s in front of them, so we’re positioned enough for guys’ roles to expand.”

That will be crucial for all of these teams to blossom this season. AU, George Mason and Navy were all possible league contenders at this time last year, yet all possess significant questions entering the season.

Given the infusion of youth, no one is likely to uncover concrete answers until after the season starts.

“It’s not like we could really over the summer and in the preseason X-and-O and say, ‘OK, well, we’re going to tweak this,’ because we didn’t know,” Jones said. “Watching kids when they play in high school, you can find out their talent, but you’re really not going to know how they fit into different things.”

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