How do you say "wait until next year" in Lithuanian?

Editor's Note: In the third installment of our series of team-by-team previews of Patriot League teams we take a look at the Eagles of American University.

If you are an American University fan, you might be wondering what lies ahead for the Eagles in the 2005-2006 season.

You are not alone. The guy who gets paid to figure those things out is not sure what to expect either.

“I really don’t know a lot about my team,” Jones told the league’s media day gathering.

The confusion goes beyond the usual AU excuse of not being able to speak the players’ native tongues. Matter of fact, with all five of this year’s freshmen coming from schools right here in the U.S.A., the Eagles are down to just three foreign players (all Lithuanians naturally) on their roster.

That is one of the few known factors about this team. Andre Ingram is another known quantity.

The 6-3 junior was second in the league in scoring last season, averaging better than 15 points per game. The consensus all-league pick also averaged a lot of minutes – almost 35 per game. That seemed to take a toll down the stretch. In the final four games of last season, Ingram shot less than 30 percent from the field (13-of-44, 29.5 percent) and averaged only 9 points per game.

Without a doubt, having a guy like Ingram in the lineup will give American a puncher’s chance every time out. Just ask Lafayette. Ingram dropped 37 on the Leopards last season. Virginia Commonwealth probably remembers him, too. Ingram scorched VCU for 38 in AU’s season opener last year.

Here is the problem for American: As hard as they had to ride Ingram last year, they might need to depend on him even more this go around. The next four, and five of the next six, leading scorers from last year’s 16-12 (overall) team that finished third in the league (8-6 PL) are gone.

Ingram’s backcourt mate, Jason Thomas, whose 39-percent three-point shooting helped keep the lane open for Ingram’s drives has graduated, taking his 12.4 points per game with him. Matej Cresnik (6-9, 9.4 ppg), 6-7 Raimondas Petrauskas (8.6 ppg, 10.1 in league games) and 6-6 forward Patrick Okpwae (7.1 ppg) are also gone. For those of you keeping score at home, that is 37.5 points per game that needs to be replaced – 40.1 if you throw in 5-9 guard Ryan Graham’s 2.6 ppg. It’s also 18.4 rebounds – over half the tam’s average last year – that must be replenished.

At the risk of seeming to heap it on, the loss of Cresnik, Petrauskas, and Okpwae also means the loss of three of four players taller than 6-5 on the Eagles roster.

Jones is expecting the lone returning big man to fill a lot of that void. Brayden Billbe played in all 28 games as a sophomore, shooting 52 percent from the floor. The 6-10 center averaged only 2.5 points and 2.7 rebounds last season, but Jones expects this to be Billbe’s breakout year.

“Brayden has probably improved, from his freshman year until now, more than any player I have ever coached from his freshman to junior year,” Jones says.

That won’t necessarily translate into bigger numbers for Billbe, especially early in the season. South Carolina transfer Paulius Joneliunas (6-11) becomes eligible at the end of the first semester, but until then, skinny freshman Brian Gilmore (6-8, 210) will be the only other guy taller than 6-5 in uniform.

Since Gilmore is viewed as more of a perimeter player, that does not bode well for AU’s frontline, especially on offense.

Understandably, Jones is already looking ahead to conference play, when Joneliunas will be available.

“That will be a big shot in the arm for conference play, having Paulius . . . We go from being really thin up front, and small, to at least having a reasonable amount of depth and decent size with Billbe at 6-10 and Paulius at 6-11,” says Jones.

Until then, Jones says, “We are going to have to have some combination of Jordan Nichols (6-5), the freshman, Brian Gilmore, a freshman, and Travis Lay (6-5), a sophomore who did not play hardly at all last year.”

Don’t expect one of that trio to win the job outright.

“They are all close. They will have to do it by committee. I don’t see one of them jumping that far ahead of the others,” Jones says.

It goes without saying that American will have a tough time staying above .500 in non-conference play. Especially with five straight road games to open the campaign and only four non-con home dates overall (The good news: All four—Mount Saint Mary’s, Towson, Howard and Yale should be winnable).

Jones is hoping the experience the young frontcourt guys gain early, combined with the infusion of Joneliunas, will allow American to peak in time for the league tournament.

“Those guys are going to have to play some important minutes for us early in the season. Hopefully during that time, the experience they get can pay off so that when Paulius comes in we will be that much stronger,” Jones said.

The backcourt is slightly more experienced, with 5-11 junior Linas Lekavicius returning at the point and 6-5 junior Sekou Lewis likely to step into the three spot. Lewis was a key man off the bench last season, averaging nearly 15 minutes per game in his 22 appearances. Lekavicius, whose natural position is the two, is a serviceable point, though hardly in the class of Lehigh’s Joe Knight, Bucknell’s Abe Badmus or the Holy Cross duo of Torey Thomas and Pat Dougherty.

Freshman Derrick Mercer(5-9) could challenge for time at the point. If one of those two steps up to claim serious minutes, it might allow Lekavicius to see time at both guard positions. Another freshman, 5-11 Garrison Carr, who can play both guard positions, and 6-2 junior Arvydas Eitutavicius will also.

Rounding out the AU roster are senior guard Craig Weinstein and sophomore Romone Penny. Between them they saw all of 44 minutes of action last year (actually, Penny saw none. Weinstein logged all of those 44 minutes). In the preseason prospectus, Weinstein, one of the team’s captains, is described as a guy who “will be asked to mentor some of the younger players on the team, teaching them how to play hard and practice harder.” Penny is called a “a natural leader and a good locker room influence.”

Roughly translated, both descriptions man the same thing: take a seat down there at the end of the bench fellows.

If you are the kind of guy who goes for what editors like to call a “nut graph” that sums things up succinctly, American’s prospects can be reduced to this simple sentence: Wait until next year.

“It is safe to say that we are, and will be for some time, a work in progress,” Jones admitted.

With only one senior, a freshman class that Colgate coach Emmitt Davis calls “maybe the best recruiting class in the league” and 6-9 Georgetown transfer Cornelio Guibunda already in the fold for next season, American won’t have to wait long to return to its accustomed spot in the league’s first division. But it is not likely to happen this season.

NOTES: AU’s freshman class is long on football genes. Nichols’ brother Jerome played at Wake Forest and Carr’s father played at Washington . . . not to be outdone, Penny’s cousin is linebacker Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens … Lewis prepped for a year at The Pendleton School in Florida after playing his high school ball as LeBron James’ teammate at Cleveland St. Vincent-St. Mary’s . . . Lewis had a scare in preseason drills when he experienced some tightness in his chest, but he has been cleared to play after a full exam by a cardiologist . . . Carr has been doing an Ingram impersonation in preseason drills, donning a protective mask to shield a broken nose.

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