Men's B-ball's shot percentage for trip to PL, NCAA Tourney

Two years in the Patriot League, two Men's Basketball title games, two losses to Holy Cross and two missed NCAA tournament bids. Three years ago, AU would have been thrilled to be in a conference title game. But now, they are looking for more.

Despite losing four seniors, including last year's leading scorers Steven Miles and Glenn Stokes, AU Men's Basketball enters the 2003-04 season knowing where the Promised Land is. Now they just have to get there.

"This year is no different than last year, or the year before that," Head Coach Jeff Jones said. "We expect to compete for a league title."

Not everyone does though. As Jones noted, there's been several preseason polls ranking the PL teams, and AU has come in anywhere from No. 2 to No. 6. The Eagles aren't all in diapers. They are younger this year than last, however, with point guard Andres Rodriguez and small forward Jernavis Draughn, both starters last year, as the only seniors. But with those leaders and several returning contributors, Jones and his staff are optimistic about team chemistry and the upcoming season.

"Andres has gone after his role as an on-court vocal leader with gusto," Jones said. "Jernavis, so far in practice, has been doing the things we've been trying to get him to do for a while, and hopefully will be more consistent throughout this season. As far as other players, the guys are competing for many things, including minutes. But our coaching staff has a pretty good idea of who should be doing what, and who will be filling what roles."

Junior forward Matej Cresnik is the third returning starter. Then there are several players fighting for the fourth and fifth spots, as well as key roles off the bench. Forward Raimondas Petrauskas and swingman Jason Thomas, both juniors who played substantial minutes last year, will be among that mix. So will the prodigal junior forward Patrick Okpwae, who according to Jones has tremendous upside but is still very raw after cutting his own season short last year because of a difference in opinion with the coaching staff. Sophomore Jamaal Caterina, another forward, rounds out the key returnees.

"Our front court is going to be much more experienced," said Rodriguez. "With Jernavis and Matej coming back, with [Raimondas] playing well in the last 10 games last year, and with Okpwae back, our front court will be better and more experienced than last year's. The key will be our shooting guards."

Enter freshmen Linas Lekavicius and Andre Ingram, both Virginia high school products, both guards, and both expected to make immediate contributions to the Eagles. Lekavicus was the co-state player of the year last year, while Ingram was the class AAA state player of the year.

"No one will approach the 32 points a game Stokes and Miles put up last year," said Jones. "But the guys who are going to have to fill the void, Linas and Andre, have proven they have the talent to score often for us. That's why they were recruited. Whether they are ready to do that right now, we'll see."

While uncertainty surrounds some facets of AU's game, there are two things the Eagles will do for sure - run and play defense.

"Our play is going to be more up and down," Thomas said. "Four or five guys may average 10 points a game. And when more people get involved it's better for everybody. Hopefully we're going to put on a good show for everyone."

Rodriguez believed his team was in need of defining themselves as a team.

"We came into this year looking for an identity," Rodriguez said. "Our coaches have focused on making our identity our defense. Having so many guys and going maybe to a nine or 10-man rotation, it makes players more intent on playing defense, in practice and games, because there is more competition for spots."

The Eagles, who start their regular season in less than four weeks with a short trip to ACC powerhouse Maryland on Nov. 22, have a long road-heavy non-conference schedule. Besides Maryland, other games of note include a trip to Notre Dame, a holiday stay in Honolulu for the Rainbow Classic Tournament and a first round clash versus Pepperdine.

The Eagles also host Delaware, UNC-Greensboro and Ivy League contender Yale. While last year's schedule was tough, including visits to several eventual conference champions, this year's is equally difficult and perhaps greater in notoriety.

"Maybe this schedule gives us more visibility," Jones said, "especially with the Maryland game being on television. Receiving an invitation to the Rainbow Classic is a step forward for our program." Jones added he hopes to travel to another exempt tournament in the 2004-05 season.

"It's good for us to play games like this," Thomas said. "It brings us attention, and we get out there and prove we can compete. But every game we play we expect to win, I don't care who we play."

After Christmas comes the PL season and the important games. With Holy Cross losing three starters, and Lafayette and Colgate returning nearly everyone, the title race will be close, but open. Thomas, Rodriguez and Jones all say the league will be tougher from top to bottom this year than last. The key to league success, they say, will be doing the little things that made the difference between Holy Cross and the rest of the league last season.

"We need to be tougher mentally," Rodriguez said. "In our two losses to Holy Cross, the game was decided in the last five minutes by them making the little plays like getting offensive rebounds after free-throws and grabbing loose balls. That was the difference last year."

"Right now rebounding and hustling, we have to make those huge points," Thomas said. "If we can stay on top of our game, we'll be getting over that hump."

AU opens its pre-season with an exhibition at Bender Arena against the World Stars next Tuesday at 7 p.m. The Eagles play their first regular season home game against Delaware on Nov. 25 at 7 p.m.

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