Recently, the campus has come alive with the possibility that the first-place men’s basketball team could be heading to the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament or the National Invitational Tournament. With a victory next Wednesday, coupled with a loss by Navy, the Eagles would clinch the Patriot League regular season title and an automatic birth to the NIT.
However, this is not the first time that the Eagles have a chance to make it to the big dance, or the little dance for that matter. While it might not seem apparent from the banners, or lack thereof, that hang from the rafters at Bender Arena, AU men’s basketball has made it to national tournaments in the past, often with excellent results.
Following the end of World War II, the Eagles were one of the most dominant teams in the region, winning the Mason-Dixon Conference title five times in ten seasons, including back-to-back titles in 1944-45 and 1950-51.
Using this great success at the conference level, the Eagles were finally able to dance the jitterbug during the 1950s when they qualified for three straight NCAA College Division (Division II) tournaments from 1958 through 1960.
Led by Willie Jones, the Eagles captured three NCAA Eastern Regional crowns during this time and made it to the national stage in Evansville, Ind. Jones still holds the record for number of points in a single tournament game, with 54 in a match-up against Evansville in 1960.
Although the Eagles lost each time in the quarterfinals of the tourney, they proved that they were among the top eight teams in the nation and a true force to be reckoned with.
Once Willie Jones graduated in 1960, it would be a period of time before AU could once again break out their dance moves in front of the whole school.
Disco had replaced the jitterbug by the 1970s when the Eagles posted their all-time best regular season record at 21-5 in 1973. Head coach Tom Young and All-American Kermit Washington led the team to their first-ever appearance in the National Invitational Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Washington, who would later become infamous for punching Rudy Tomjanovich of the Houston Rockets in the face during an NBA game in 1977, was unstoppable that season, becoming the only player in Division I history to average 20 points and 20 rebounds per game over the course of an entire season. AU moved up to Division I when the NCAA reorganized their divisions in 1973.
Although the Eagles only stayed on the dance floor for one song, losing in the opening game to the University of Louisville, it was great to see the school back in the national spotlight.
The Eagles made it back to the little dance two more times in the 1980s to the groove of the “Electric Slide,” making it back to the NIT in 1981 and 1982. Once again, they only lasted that first game, losing in the opening round each time.
So dust off those fancy gowns and warm up those dance moves to cheer on your Eagles, as they once again try to put on Cinderella’s slipper and join the big boys at the ball.