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American, George Washington Hoping To Survive Madness

March 19, 2014

March Madness is always about dreams -- even if they eventually become nightmares. 

American University wants to be the next "Hoosiers." The No. 15 Eagles will face No. 2 Wisconsin during the March 20 West Regional at Milwaukee. It so smells like the one-and-dones that American suffered during the 2008 and 2009 NCAA tournaments, which were both double-digit losses. 

American University 2014: Men's Basketball Coach Mike Brennan (sideline)
Photo Credit: Courtesy of American University Athletic Communications

But the Eagles have one chance against the Badgers -- drag them into a slowdown. American plays the Princeton offense, and it's the slowest ball on earth. American won the Patriot League tournament by beating Boston University, 55-36. Yes, 36 points? How many teams score 55 and win, much less by 19 points? 

It's all about taking high-percentage shots. Indeed, American converted 49.5 percent of its attempts this season, mostly on backdoor plays with a national-best 65.7 percent of scores including an assist. The Eagles have four players averaging in double figures, and balance is their best hope to becoming only the eighth No. 15 seed to win since the tournament expanded in 1985. They'll need a big effort by 6-foot-10 center Tony Wroblicky, the Patriot League's Defensive Player of the Year who blocked 61 shots this year. 

Coach Mike Brennan did a terrific job turning around the Eagles during his first season back at American after four seasons as a Georgetown assistant. Brennan was an American assistant during the two previous NCAA appearances, and this team is far better than last season's 10-20 squad. The Eagles were preseason choices for ninth in a 10-team league, but finished 20-12. 

It's hard not to root for American against Wisconsin, which has reached its 16th straight NCAA tournament. The Eagles are 13.5-point underdogs to the Badgers, who are barely playing one hour away from their campus. The Badgers are 13-0 against nonconference opponents.

It's going to be a major upset if American beats Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, No. 9 George Washington will meet No. 8 Memphis March 21 during the East Regional. The Colonials (24-8) also have a first-year coach leading a turnaround in Mike Lonergan, who has revitalized the Foggy Bottom school. Lonergan did good things at nearby Catholic before becoming a Maryland assistant, and later Vermont head coach, before returning to the Washington, D.C., area, where he's a popular coach. 

The game between eighth and ninth seeds is always one of those tournament tossups, and Memphis is a three-point favorite. Neither team especially has a marquee player. 

But George Washington could take this game, given that Memphis stumbled into the NCAA tournament by splitting its last eight games, including an opening-round American Athletic Conference tournament loss. But, Memphis is really good at ballhanding, averaging 17 assists per game. The Tigers are likely to whip the ball around the Colonials, who will be looking around while making their first NCAA appearance since the 2006-07 season. 

But it's a hard mismatch of styles. George Washington has the solid frontcourt; Memphis a strong backcourt. Momentum will most likely decide who advances against probable second-round opponent Virginia. 

D.C. basketball fans are certainly bemused by longtime kingpins Georgetown and Maryland missing the tournament and American and George Washington dancing into the postseason. Neither figures to last long, but each has a puncher's chance of one more game.

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