The AU Men’s Basketball team might be the hottest team in the Patriot League entering this weekend’s opening rounds of the conference tournament in Upper Marlboro, Md.
In the last two weekends, the Eagles (16-12, 10-4) have won four straight games to secure a share of a regular season PL title that looked well out of reach in mid-February. But with co-leaders Lehigh (10-4) and contenders Lafayette (9-5) and Bucknell (9-5) all losing crucial games last weekend, the Eagles basically walked through an open door.
The tournament should be a stiffer test. Though the Eagles are co-champs, Lehigh secures the first seed via its 2-0 record against AU this season. Should the seeding hold to form, AU would travel to Bethlehem, Pa. for the PL championship on March 14.
If the regular season is any indication, there’s no reason to think that seeding will hold. Everyone in the PL has shown they can compete with everyone - even Army, seeded seventh (3-11), and Navy (2-12), seeded eighth. Army beat Colgate (6-8), the sixth seed, twice, while Navy beat Lafayette, the third seed and previously the PL leaders, on Lafayette’s floor.
“Every coach, in every league, every year, says the same thing,” said AU head coach Jeff Jones. “It’s so wide open this year, anyone can win. But when you look at what’s transpired over the course of our season, it really has been crazy.”
Army is the Eagles’ quarterfinal opponent in a 5 p.m. game at Show Place Arena on Saturday. If the Eagles advance, they’ll play Lafayette or Colgate in the semifinals at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. And if they win that, either the trip to Bethlehem or a home game versus the winner of Lehigh’s half of the bracket awaits the Eagles the following Sunday.
If they win that, they go to the NCAA tournament. But that’s a lot of ifs, and a lot of history to overcome.
AU hasn’t even won five games in a row since 1992. More importantly, AU hasn’t made the Division I NCAA tournament or won a Division I conference tournament, in school history.
But recently, it has been on the doorstep. In 2002 and 2003, AU advanced to the final, only to lose to Holy Cross in both games. Senior guard Andres Rodriguez, senior forward Jernavis Draughn and junior forward Matej Cresnik all started that game. Junior forward Raimondas Petrauskas, junior guard Jason Thomas and freshman guard Ryan Graham also played.
And though some of AU’s key players this year, like freshman guard and leading scorer Andre Ingram, haven’t played in a PL tournament before, the Eagles said they feel a collective urgency this year because of their recent near-misses.
“Everyone, even the freshmen, has taken a share in this,” Rodriguez said. “I think we have the best mentality towards playing our kind of basketball right now. Everyone’s excited about the way we’re playing. Everyone’s anxious.”
A big question for this team, which is less experienced than last year’s team, is can it maintain that excitement, anxiety and energy level? Jones admits it’s a big problem, and one that’s a bit new to him.
Last year’s leaders, guards Steven Miles and Glenn Stokes, were demanding of their teammates, so much so that Jones says he rarely dealt with emotionally motivating his players.
“This year Jernavis is so laid-back and Andres is a leader, but not as in your face as Steve would be, or as vocal as Glenn would be,” Jones said. “So we’ve had to push a little bit harder.”
Jones hopes the lose-and-go-home nature of the tournament will serve as enough motivation. Meanwhile, aside from mental aspects of the game, the biggest key for AU is to continue playing within its identity, something Rodriguez says has only consistently happened toward the close of the season.
“Our identity has been the same as at the beginning of the season,” Rodriguez said. “We’re not a great offensive team, but we can be a great defensive team. We’ve let down over the course of the year.”
Over the winning streak, he said, his team has focused intensely on playing within that identity.
“We shot terribly and still came up with wins against Holy Cross, Colgate and at Army,” Rodriguez said to illustrate his point.
While maintaining that team focus, different players are finally starting to understand their individual roles better, and Rodriguez said that is just as big.
He points to Cresnik, the long lanky forward who still looks for the three-pointer, but has established himself inside more often and has had some big games because of it.
He points to Ingram, who despite inexperience, has embraced the role of being the team’s main offensive weapon, and who scored a career-high 30 points last Saturday at Lafayette.
He points to junior forward Patrick Okpwae, who has overcome discipline issues to win a spot in the starting lineup, despite not always playing tons of minutes, he plays a crucial role as a shot-blocker and someone who can bring energy to the start of a game.
And he points to “Rimus” Petrauskas, the brawny Lithuanian who quietly has become another dangerous offensive threat for the Eagles.
“Rimus has taken the largest steps of any player the last couple weeks,” Rodriguez said. “He’s realized he doesn’t need to ask for the ball. His offense has more flow when he concentrates on his screens. He took five or six shots and had at least 12 points [against Lafayette], that came off his screens.”
Petrauskas’ no-nonsense attitude is perhaps the perfect model for his team to follow. In the postseason, Petrauskas’ effectiveness takes precedence over Ingram’s finesse, Rodriguez’s hustle or Okpwae’s energy. Jones knows this and hopes his team does by now.