Can American University win another Patriot League title?
College Contributor Network
With the Patriot League title on the line this weekend, few basketball fans are expecting a repeat performance from last year's winner, American University.
But the No.6 seed Eagles, who earned a trip to the Big Dance by sweeping the tournament in 2014, played strong against top-ranked Bucknell last Saturday and could still be a threat.
Head coach Mike Brennan acknowledged in early January that winning the Patriot League tournament would prove challenging this season, and his predictions have played out on the court.
"I think all games are going to be like this, and you're going to win some, you're going to lose some," Brennan said in a press conference after AU defeated Colgate in double overtime on Jan. 10, 2015.
The Eagles finished the season with a 15-15 overall record and an 8-10 record in the conference. Despite being chosen as the Patriot League pre-season favorite, AU has picked up a No. 6 seed for the tournament after losing their final regular season game to Bucknell University 71-69 on Feb. 28.
While the 2014-2015 season fails to match AU's success from previous year, the Eagles still remain in the hunt for a conference title. The league is tight, with most games being decided by ten points or less, and all ten teams have a shot at an NCAA bid heading into March.
When Bucknell squeaked by AU on Saturday afternoon and pulled out a win, they secured the No.1 seed in the tournament, which guarantees them home court advantage for the duration of the tournament. The Bison have struggled on the road, and their weakness showed over the weekend, as they had difficultly extending a large lead over AU. The Eagles battled back-and-forth with the Bison, and the game came down to a buzzer-beater attempt by senior guard Darius "Pee Wee" Gardner that fell just short of the basket. If Gardner had hit his shot, the Eagles would have earned a win against the No. 1 conference seed and secured a fifth place ranking.
Gardner also committed a detrimental foul in the final seconds on the game against Bucknell, and his mistake proved costly as BU freshman forward Zach Thomas sunk a free throw that extending his team's lead to two points. The Eagles can stay alive in the Patriot League tournament if they stay out of foul trouble, play relaxed and capitalize under pressure.
Brennan believes that the winner of this year's tournament will be determined by the team that most efficiently executes on the minor details and avoids errors.
"We've got to do all the little things to be on the winning side," Brennan said in a press conference on Jan. 26.
Height remains a concern for the Eagles, who are missing 6-foot-11 sophomore center Zach Elcano and 6-foot-9 senior center Kevin Panzer to injury. Junior Marko Vasic, who has filled in the center position, recorded only his third career start against the Bison on Saturday but led both teams in scoring with 21 points. As Vasic continues to develop, the Eagles offense will gain a powerful asset, and AU's success will depend on the team's ability to adjust to their new lineup.
"We're getting more comfortable," Brennan said. "We talked about our center spot. Marko, he's played spot minutes at it, but he hasn't played a full game, so he's learning on the fly."
AU squares off against Lehigh (16-13, 10-8 PL) on Thursday night in Bethlehem, Penn. for their first match-up of the tournament. Lehigh enters the game fresh off a loss to Colgate on Feb. 28, but they previously defeated Bucknell by nearly twenty points just three days earlier. The Eagles have split wins with Lehigh in their previous two meetings.
"Inside that locker room, we feel like we can beat anybody, and we have the confidence," Gardner said. "We just need to have it on Thursday, which we will. We need to know that every game could be our last, and if we have that mentality going in, I think we will be fine."
Shannon Scovel is a sophomore journalism student at American University where she serves as the sports editor of her student newspaper, The Eagle. Originally from Cary, North Carolina, Shannon has a passion for sports and previously worked as a correspondent for the Raleigh News and Observer covering high school athletics.