Having reached the halfway point of the Patriot League season, American has just seven games remaining in the regular season. The Eagles (14-7, 6-1) sit atop the conference standings, tied with Holy Cross (11-11, 6-1), the only Patriot League team to beat them this season, and are enjoying their best start in league play since going 7-1 in the East Coast Conference in 1981-82.
“We’re not at all satisfied with where we are,” senior forward Jordan Nichols said. “We’re coming together well right now, but we still have a lot of work to do. . . . We’re getting to the point where I feel like we’re going to be able to round into shape right when we need to.”
Perhaps the most significant developments during the first half of the league season have been the emergence of scorers other than Garrison Carr and the heady play of Derrick Mercer. Carr, the league’s second-leading scorer at 17.6 points per game, continues to generate much of the Eagles' offense, but others are starting to share the burden. Brian Gilmore has scored in double figures in all but two league games and, in conference games only, ranks third in the Patriot League in scoring at 15.6 points per game. Sophomore guard Nick Hendra is giving American a much needed boost off the bench. Hendra, who had 14 points and seven rebounds in the win against Army, has become the team’s fourth-leading scorer.
Mercer has been indispensible to the Eagles, who operate much more efficiently when he’s on the court. He makes sure his teammates get the ball where and when they want it. Always a threat to drive to the basket and score, Mercer has started becoming a more consistent perimeter shooter. And despite his size – generously listed at 5 feet 9 – he’s the team’s third-leading rebounder.
One area of concern remains American’s tendency to let their opponents back into games rather than putting them away. That wasn’t the case on Wednesday night in the Eagles’ 58-34 victory over Army. The Black Knights fell behind early and never threatened.
“We’re coming together,” Nichols said. “Guys are figuring out their roles. We’re realizing we have to play hard every game to win. . . . [The Army] game and Colgate probably have been the two games we’ve done the best at being able to keep a team from making a big run and getting back in the game. That’s really the difference between a good team and a really good team. I don’t think we’re bad right now, but we could be a lot better if we could get that down.”
Asked to evaluate his team at this point in the season, American Coach Jeff Jones was reluctant to become too introspective. “It’s probably a dangerous thing,” he said, but added, “We’ve done some good stuff. One thing I would say, looking back on the first half of the conference play and our nonconference, is making sure we don’t lose that edge. Any team, but we especially, because we’ve got a slim margin for error, without that edge, we’re not nearly as good. So, trying to find that sharpness and keep that rhythm. That’s one thing. We’re a team that definitely at times really gets in a nice rhythm.”
The Eagles begin their second go-around in the Patriot League on Saturday at Lehigh.
February 6, 2009; 6:29 AM ET
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