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For American And Howard, The Long Climb Begins Again

After a disappointing end to last season, American University is trying to prime itself for another Patriot League title run, while Howard tries to get back to respectability.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - American University's 2010-11 basketball season ended in tears. After winning 21 games in the regular season and earning the second seed in the Patriot League conference tournament, the Eagles were stunned in double-overtime by Lafayette and seniors Vlad Moldoveanu and Nick Hendra sobbed as they left the postgame press conference.

Howard University didn't even get that close in 2010-11. Under first-year coach Kevin Nickelberry, the Bison finished 6-24 and 4-12 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

The two teams met Tuesday night at Bender Arena in a game that was mostly entertaining, occasionally ragged, and suffered from a severe lack of flow due to the 59 personal fouls that were called. American won, 77-66, their 14th win in 17 games against Howard (the Bison's last win in this series came in December of 2001, an 80-71 triumph at Bender).

"Ugly game," American coach Jeff Jones said to open his postgame remarks. He was right of course, but also encouraged by his team's five-game winning streak after opening the season with a creditable 66-56 loss to Richmond and a distinctly less creditable 64-62 overtime loss at Maryland-Eastern Shore.

As the calender turns to December, Jones is still trying to put the right pieces of his lineup in place.  Moldoveanu, a 1,000-point scorer in 2010-11, Hendra, and habitual starter Steve Luptak have all graduated. Stephen Lumpkins, another key player on last year's team, opted out of his last year of eligibility to play baseball in the Kansas City Royals farm system.  That leaves seniors Troy Brewer and Charles Hinkle as ironclad starters for Jones. Daniel Munoz, a junior who played reserve minutes last season has been upgraded to a starting role, while freshman John Schoof rounds out the three-guard portion of the lineup. 

The center spot has turned into a three-way battle between sophomore Tony Wroblicky, junior Daniel Fisher and senior Riley Grafft. Wroblicky started on Tuesday night, but Grafft stole the show, scoring a career-high 21 points on 7-for-8 field goal shooting and generally having his way against Howard's undersized interior defense.

"He's been playing well," Jones said of Grafft, who also scored 12 points on 4-for-5 shooting in Sunday's 65-63 win over Cornell. "Those three guys -- Tony, Riley, and Fisher-- are going to collectively help us on any given night. There'll be times when one's playing well and the others aren't, so it's going to be up and down with the three of them all season. It takes everybody in the rotation."

Life in a one-bid league like the Patriot League is all about getting into position, practicing, perfecting, and preparing for a week-long conference tournament run in early March. Having come so close this past spring, Jones is now faced with the task of taking the long view with a team that needs a lot of short-term work.

"There have been times this season when I watch us play and think, 'Wow, that was pretty good,'" Jones said Tuesday night. "When we focus, we look pretty good. We just need to be a little bit better about that."

For their part, the Bison, who dropped to 2-4 with the loss, drew praise from Brewer after the game.

"They were more aggressive and physical. They played man-to-man mostly, and I think the last time we played (a 66-54 American win) they played more zone. They've definitely improved and become more aggressive."

Unfortunately, that aggression did Howard in as they were whistled for 33 personal fouls by the officiating crew of Sean Hull, Alvin Cox and Bruce Rothwell. Due to Nickelberry's decision to empty his bench, only one player--Prince Okoroh--actually fouled out of the game. But Howard was whistled for six fouls in the first five minutes of the second half, a development which hampered their hopes for making a second half run.

"They were aggressive, physical, they played very hard," Jones said. "They made the decision [in the first half] to force the tempo. They weren't going to allow us just to run. They made us play our halfcourt offense, and we did not respond very well."

Howard's team is young and deep and will be bolstered by the addition of two transfers: Glenn Andrews (previously from Tulsa) and Tre Lee (Coastal Carolina) will become eligible to play in the MEAC opener against Hampton December 4. For now, however, the focus should just be a return to respectability for a team that lost 19 games by double-digits last season.