- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

American University conquered the Patriot League tournament. Now the Eagles will try their luck on the big stage — and they know exactly what kind of challenge they’ll face.

The No. 15 seed in the West region of the NCAA tournament, American (20-12, 13-5 in Patriot League) will face No. 2 seed Wisconsin (26-7, 12-6 in Big Ten) Thursday at 12:40 p.m. in Milwaukee.

Defeating the Badgers, who began the season 16-0, will be a difficult task but American coach Mike Brennan knows his team will be ready to play.

“We’ve been in an environment like this before,” said Brennan. “I haven’t had too many highs or lows emotionally with this group all year, so I think they are in tuned with what they have to do.”

American will square off with its second Big Ten opponent of the season, after falling to Ohio State 63-52 back in November. The Eagles played the Buckeyes tough, coming within seven points with just over six minutes left in the game, so they consider themselves ready for a big arena with thousands of fans rooting against them.

The game will be held at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, with a capacity of 19,000 — quite a step up from the 2,200 fans who watched the Eagles take down Boston University in the Patriot League championship last week.

Senior Tony Wroblicky plans to treat Thursday’s contest like “any other road game,” which will be much easier said than done. Considering the largest crowd AU has seen was in Columbus with 14,639, blocking out the noise and focusing on execution will be crucial.

“Ohio State was a tough game, but every road game is a tough game,” said junior guard Darius “Pee Wee” Gardner. “That prepares us to play on the road. The crowd matters, but it also matters what we do on the court.”

While preparation will be key, American will look to its previous experiences from this season heading into Thursday’s matchup. Though it may not be possible to prepare for the size and speed Wisconsin will present, American is used to guarding teams with athletic big men and shooters all over the court.

“Shooting is a premium in our league,” said Brennan. “There are teams in our league that have a similar philosophy offensively, so we can draw on those things.”

On paper, American appears to be the Wisconsin of the Patriot League. While Wisconsin averages 10 points per game more than American, each team has four starters who averaged double digits in scoring. Neither team rebounds at a particularly high margin (33 rebounds per game for Wisconsin, 30 for American), and both shoot 3-pointers at around 38 percent.

Brennan praised the program Badgers coach Bo Ryan has put in place and spoke of the high basketball intelligence and the disciplined approach Wisconsin takes. Coincidentally, discipline and intelligence are two words Brennan frequently uses to talk about his team.

The NCAA tournament is consistently filled with the Cinderella stories — teams coming from no where competing for the championship. In recent years, the gap between the powerhouses and “mid-majors” has closed abruptly.

“I think programs are getting better,” said Brennan. “There are good players, and there are great coaches [at our level]. You just have more good programs out there that are able to compete.”

Seven No. 15 seeds have defeated a No. 2 seed in the first round, with three of those victories coming within the last two seasons. While American looks to join the likes of Norfolk State, Lehigh and Florida Gulf Coast, the Eagles are also looking to prove they belong in the field of 68.

“We’ve been seen as the underdog and everybody thinks if we would do anything we’d be happy to be there,” said sophomore guard Jesse Reed. “We know that we deserve to be there — and we feel that we deserve to be in the tournament this year as well.”

Since taking the court last, American has gone through quite a whirlwind – from Selection Sunday, to booking flights, to a celebratory send-off rally on Tuesday. But the Eagles are eager to return to the court and get back to what they know best.

“We’re going into the game with the mentality of it being a war,” said Tony Wroblicky, the Eagles’ lone senior. “We’re gonna have to play our best game of the year to be competitive. To win would be unbelievable.”

• Mitch White can be reached at mwhite@washingtontimes.com.

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