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2006-07 Preview: American Eagles

7 November, 2006

by

American fans must feel like their team is running in reverse. From winning the Patriot League five years ago, to two second-place finishes, to a third-place finish, and last year dropping to fourth place, the Eagles have stepped back a bit each year since joining the league. However, after what could reasonably be considered a rebuilding year, American returns its top 12 scorers from last year, led by a strong senior class and a fast-developing group of sophomores. There’s no doubt the Eagles will be a better team this year. The question is, are they improved enough to jump back into the mix at the top of the league?

Point
As a freshman, Derrick Mercer was thrown into the fire, starting all 29 games for American and leading the team in minutes played. Mercer’s poise and toughness earned him Patriot League Rookie of the Year honors. This year, he leads a lineup full of seniors who are looking to Mercer to bring the team to the next level. Mercer showed excellent decision-making skills last year, leading the team with 3.8 assists per game, and also finding good shots for himself. Mercer converted 45.6 percent of his field goal attempts last year, including 44.6 from beyond the arc. These are excellent numbers for a point guard and suggest that Mercer is letting shots come to him in the flow of the game rather than forcing them. Mercer is small even by Patriot League standards, standing just 5-9. His size will occasionally hurt him against good backcourts, but Mercer tried to make up for that last year by running circles around bigger guards and energetically pestering them on defense. American is a team that will be moving the ball around a lot on offense; Mercer’s passing and decision-making make him a good fit for Jeff Jones’ offense.
Rating: OOO

Wing
After a spectacular early career that included leading the team in scoring as a freshman and making First Team All-League as a sophomore, Andre Ingram appeared to stall out a bit last year. His field goal percentage dropped to 34.5 percent, his three-point percentage to 33.8 percent. He again led the team in scoring, but seemed to disappear at times, especially in games against Bucknell. Ingram is still the go-to guy in the Eagles’ offense, and he will have to play above his performance last year for the Eagles to make a run at winning the league. Ingram is a very good rebounder for a guard, pulling in 4.7 boards per game last year.

After a dalliance at point guard two years ago, Linas Lekavicius returned to the off-guard position last year to much success. Originally projected as a backup, Lekavicius played his way into the starting lineup with strong shooting and great defense. Lekavicius hit 50.0 percent of his shots last year and played a great all-around game, averaging 6.9 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.4 steals per game. He also came up huge in the Patriot League tournament, scoring 18 against Lafayette and then 21 at Bucknell. Lekavicius combines with Mercer to form a very strong defensive backcourt. However, both measure below 6-feet, so the Eagles will have to go with bigger guards in some matchups.
Rating: OOO

Post
Formerly a string bean, 6-10 Brayden Billbe has bulked up to 235 lbs., and Jones is hoping Billbe will play an assertive frontcourt style. Billbe played well last year, scoring 8.1 points per game on 51.0-percent shooting, and added a team-high 4.8 rebounds per game, but had a tendency to get pushed around by beefier centers. Billbe displayed a good baseline jumper last year, but rarely got the ball right under the basket. If Billbe’s interior scoring comes along well, it will open up the floor for Lekavicius’s mid-range jumpers and Ingram’s treys.

Transfer Paulius Joneliunas became eligible mid-season last year, and couldn’t find consistency for the Eagles. In some games, Joneliunas was a dangerous scorer inside; in others, he disappeared. Like with Billbe, if Joneliunas finds consistency on offense it will open up the floor for the backcourt. Joneliunas’ defense improved as the season went on last year, but he was still victimized by players with good post moves.
Rating: OOO

Bench
American boasts two big scorers as backup guards. Arvydas Eitutavicius was second on scoring for the Eagles last year off the bench, averaging 10.2 points per game. He was a little too trigger-happy from long range, connecting on only 29.2 percent of his 137 three-point attempts. When Eitutavicius eschews shooting and slashes to the rim to draw fouls he is especially dangerous; he hit 86.2 percent of his foul shots last year. Garrison Carr also provides a scoring threat off the bench for American. As a freshman last year he hit 41.9 percent of his three-point attempts, and the threat of his long-range abilities stretched defenses. However Carr is just 5-11 and struggled on defense against taller guards. Senior Sekou Lewis and junior Ramone Penny will also help out the backcourt from the bench. Lewis is an athletic dunker who can’t shoot very well, and Penny is a backup point guard who brings energy to the floor.

In the frontcourt, Jordan Nichols will be the first man off the bench. Only 6-5, Nichols plays huge; he averaged 4.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. He uses his large wingspan and great instincts to stifle larger players on defense, and moves the ball well on offense. Brian Gilmore plays a combination of wing and interior on offense. Cornelio Guibunda, a junior transfer from Georgetown, is regarded as a project with a high ceiling, but will need some time to develop. Expect Guibunda to start slow and get more playing time as the season unfolds. Small forward Travis Lay developed very well for the Eagles last year, becoming a decent scorer and reliable defender. In the Patriot League Tournament semifinal game at Bucknell, Lay was the only Eagle who had success stopping Chris McNaughton. Sophomore Gary Garris will play a mop-up role for American.
Rating: OO1/2

Coaching Track Record
Since joining the Patriot League five years ago, Jeff Jones’s Eagles have never finished below .500 in conference play and have come close several times to the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament berth. But Jones received criticism when American lost three consecutive Patriot League Tournament finals, and when the Eagles faded to fourth in the league last year some placed the blame on Jones. But Jones has a good track record, both from his 44-26 record in Patriot League play, and his five NCAA Tournament appearances in eight years at Virginia. He brought in a strong freshman class last year, led by Mercer and Nichols, and his season will likely be judged by how well those sophomores develop.
Rating: OO1/2

Schedule
The Eagles have stacked their early schedule with a bunch of winnable games, with opponents like Morgan State, Longwood and Howard. They’ve also got major road games at Xavier, Maryland and Virginia, as well as a trip to Yale. The biggest stretch of league games for American comes starting Jan. 31, when the Eagles travel to Holy Cross then head home to face Lehigh and Bucknell all in an eight-day span.
Rating: OOO

Overall
Unlike the rest of the projected first-division Patriot League teams, there’s no obvious go-to scorer for the Eagles. Ingram has played that role in the past but did not fit well into it last year. If he can reclaim his sophomore-year form, or Lekavicius or Billbe can step up, American will be in good shape. They have the pieces in place to make a run at the top of the league.

Best-case scenario: Ingram becomes a scoring machine, Billbe and Nichols control the paint, Mercer becomes one of the league’s best point guards, and American wins the league with a 12-2 record.

Worst-case scenario: Ingram struggles to score, Billbe gets pushed around, and with no alpha scorer the Eagles struggle offensively and land with a 6-8 record.

Most likely scenario: Ingram bounces back somewhat, Mercer runs a crisp offense, and American finds its way back near the top of the league with a 10-4 record.
Rating: OOO

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