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American revolution: Eagles retool after graduation losses

21 October, 2007

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Perhaps no Patriot League team is facing more questions in the upcoming season than American. Jeff Jones’ squad lost four of five starters, as well as sixth man Arvydas Eitutavicius, to graduation, and they break camp with seven new players on the roster. But rather than view that as a problem, Jones chooses to consider it an opportunity.

“It’s certainly a challenge when you’ve got that many new faces to try to blend in,” Jones said at Patriot League Media Day on Thursday. “But provided the guys turn out the way we think they will, it’s a good thing as well. If you’re going to bring new faces in, you want them to be talented and able to contribute. We think that will be the case.”

With the uncertainty surrounding much of American’s starting lineup, Jones expects to rely on Derrick Mercer, a junior point guard who has been starting for the Eagles since he arrived on campus, for stability.

“He needs to be our floor leader,” Jones said. “He needs to be a guy that distributes the basketball and makes his teammates better. He needs to be the point, literally, of our defense. He needs to be the spear of our defensive attack.”

Additionally, Mercer is one of three players Jones will be counting on for team leadership, along with senior forward Travis Lay and junior forward Brian Gilmore.

“I’ve said for two years that Gilmore is the best teammate that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” Jones said. “He’s ideal. He encourages other people. He’s positive. He’s verbal.”

Jones is hoping that Gilmore, Lay and Mercer continue to step up as this season begins. “I think all three of them have done a good job of stepping forward in terms of their leadership,” Jones said. “I don’t think any of them have knocked the ball out of the park. We’re still waiting for that.”

Jones added that unlike previous years, when he selected the team captains, he will let his team vote for captains this time. “What we intend to do is talk about leadership, not specific to our team, but what is leadership, and sit down and really have a lot of input,” he said.

None of the three, however, have been big scorers for American. Mercer averaged 9.4 points per game last year, while Lay and Gilmore put up 2.9 and 2.2 points respectively, playing mostly off the bench. The Eagles need to find new scorers to replace Andre Ingram’s 15.2 points per game and Eitutavicius’s 11.6 points per game.

“There are several guys that are candidates,” Jones said. “But last year we knew game in and game out we could count on Andre Ingram for 14 or 15. Right now, in eight practices, I have no clue who our go-to guy will be. Early in the season especially, I think our leading scorer or scorers could change from game to game.”

One contender for scoring duties is incoming freshman Nick Hendra. In the recent past, Jones hasn’t shied away from using freshman in big spots; both Mercer and Ingram were starters and key contributors from their first games in uniform. But Hendra faces tough competition for playing time.

“Especially because [junior guard] Garrison Carr has come back and been shooting the lights out, I think that maybe Nick has more competition than Derrick did or Andre did,” Jones said, noting that both Mercer and Ingram were essentially competing with other freshmen for playing time. “Because Garrison is really shooting the ball well, that has made us look at how we can get Garrison and Derrick together in the backcourt and not be at a disadvantage in terms of size. So I wouldn’t discount the possibility of Nick being back there, but it’s probably not as clear-cut as it was for either of the other two examples.”

Jones said he is encouraged by the improved rebounding ability his team has shown in practice thus far. “Watching bodies go after the ball on the boards, we haven’t had anything like that for a while,” he said. “Now we’re bigger and more athletic. You combine that with what at least appears to be more aggressive players. Hopefully we can become a better rebounding team.”

“I’ve already touched on the fact that we don’t know where scoring is going to come from, so any time you can get out in transition and try to get some easy buckets, that will help. And then, having the chance for easy points on offensive rebounds, second-chance points. When you’re struggling with the ball, you’re looking for other ways to score. And when you rebound the ball, that gives you other opportunities.”

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