WASHINGTON (AP) -Welcome to the longest conference tournament in the country, a saga so spread out it looks as if it were designed by the NBA.
The Patriot League will take 10 whole days to crown its champion, starting with Wednesday's first-round games and culminating with the final on March 13. While other conferences are enjoying the helter-skelter pace of back-to-back games at neutral sites, the eight PL teams play all their games on the home court of the higher seed - with way too much breathing space in between for anxious athletes.
It brings a whole new definition to March Madness.
``I remember last year - we hated it,'' said senior Garrison Carr of top-seed and defending champion American, which hosts No. 8 seed Lafayette in the first round. ``During the time we're playing, we're watching other teams punching their tickets, playing three games in three days or whatever, and we have to wait 10 days. Just in between games it's very nerve-racking, and it just gives you more time to sit there and think of what's at stake.''
yed in their entirety while the Patriot League is sorting through its three rounds. Coaches say the long gaps give time to put together a thorough game plan for each opponent, but it also challenges their ability to get the players to focus on one game at a time.
``Particularly that last week, it really drags on,'' American coach Jeff Jones said. ``You just have to maintain your focus. Right now it's easy to maintain focus. The longer you are able to play, the gaps seem to get wider and wider.''
Don't count on it changing any time soon. The schools like it the way it is.
The championship game always gets its same national television slot in ESPN's ``Championship Week.'' Having the semifinals on Sunday cuts down on missed class time. Scheduling the first round on the previous Wednesday maintains the usual in-season routine of a midweek game followed by a weekend game.
Still, the players can't help but wonder what it would be like to have everyone together for one big show - as the mega-conferences do.
``It'd be fun to play a couple of games in a couple of days,'' American senior Brian Gilmore said. ``Like you watch the ACC tournament, guys playing game after game after game.''
f the year Derrick Mercer. Jones was selected as coach of the year.
``Not to say that there aren't other good teams that are capable of beating us, but with the seniors we have and the hard work and the regular season that we've accomplished, anything less than winning a championship here would definitely be a disappointment for us.''
The Eagles (21-7) went 13-1 in the conference, and their 10-game winning streak is the third longest in the country. Furthermore, they finally know they can do it, having won the title last season after so many close calls in recent years. American then went to the NCAA tournament for the first time as a Division I school, and Jones was given a six-year contract extension that runs through the 2013-14 season.
``The expectations are the same,'' Jones said. ``I think there's a level of confidence this year, whereas last year there was a lot of the unknown.''
Oddly enough, the school in northeast Washington represents the best NCAA hope for an area having a down season. Maryland is teetering on the bubble, Georgetown has fallen apart, and George Mason will have to win an extremely competitive Colonial Athletic Association tournament to get a bid.
Now if AU's players can only win the games - and stand the wait.
``I'm trying not to put the big picture in my head right now,'' Carr said. ``It's too early.''

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