WASHINGTON (AP) - Garrison Carr is from Washington state, not Washington, D.C., so his vision of this basketball-rich area always revolved around the usual suspects.
``Before I came here, if you had asked me, 'What team from the D.C. area is going to the tournament?' I would have just said Georgetown and Maryland, even George Washington off the top of my head,'' Carr said, ``without even knowing about American.''
Thanks in part to Carr, the locals had better learn about American - and fast. The Eagles, who host Holy Cross on Friday in the championship game of the Patriot League tournament, might very well be the only team in the area to reach this year's NCAA tournament.
How quickly the mighty have fallen. Maryland, Georgetown and George Mason all have been in the Final Four this decade. Maryland, whose College Park campus is just across the D.C. border, won a national championship as recently as 2002. George Washington was a 27-3 team just three years ago.
ament. Georgetown imploded after a torrid start and is almost certainly NIT-bound. Same for George Mason, which had a solid season but lost in the championship game of the Colonial Athletic Conference tournament. Maryland entered the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament needing a decent run to cling to a realistic chance at an at-large NCAA bid.
Not since 1978 has the D.C. area been shut of the NCAAs completely. Kid brother American is suddenly the big hope, a potential piece of pride for a school that made its NCAA tournament debut only last year. It would give the Eagles the last word in a season in which they lost to Georgetown, George Washington and Maryland - all on the road in December.
``We have the best opportunity out of all these teams to make it to the tournament,'' said Carr, AU's leading scorer and last year's Patriot League tournament MVP, ``and could be the only D.C. area school to do that. It's just a pat on the back to our program.''
Students and alumni invaded the court in a celebration awash in red, white and blue when the Eagles beat Colgate to win last year's title game, and nothing but a repeat will do for a roster loaded with seven seniors.
American (23-7) went 13-1 to win the conference regular season title, earning homecourt advantage throughout a tournament that plays all of its games at the home of the higher seed.
said Derrick Mercer, the conference player of the year, ``but as seniors you want to do better than what you did last year. Your senior year is what you're going to be last remembered for.''
The last hurdle is the biggest rival. Holy Cross (18-13, 11-3) is the No. 2 seed and the only team to beat American in 2009. The Crusaders are appearing in their seventh title game in nine years, while the Eagles have reached the championship match for the fifth time in eight years. Oddly enough, they've played each other in the final game only twice before, with Holy Cross winning in 2002 and 2003.
``No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. We split in the regular season. My vote in the preseason poll, I picked them to be the No. 1 team,'' American coach Jeff Jones said. ``We have somewhat of a history. It makes sense from a Patriot League fan's perspective that this is a great matchup. If everybody's honest, Holy Cross has been the standard-bearer for the league. They've been year-in, year-out, the most consistently successful program.''
As is usual in the Patriot League tournament, the very long buildup to the championship game has been a talking point unto itself. The semifinals were Sunday, but the title game waits until Friday afternoon for a good national television slot.
``It's driving me crazy,'' said Jones, even though he's used to it after nine seasons at the school.
American's students are on spring break, so the players have bonded by eating a pancake breakfast at a local restaurant every day this week. Last year, Carr talked about waking up in cold sweats as the days passed, but this year he's less antsy.
``It seems the wait is not bothering me as much as it did last year,'' Carr said. ``I'm taking it a lot better. I'm not as anxious or nervous as I was. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but right now I'm happy to be around my teammates and I'm enjoying every last minute.''

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