Charlie Jones sat on a couch in the front row with his teammates during a selection show party on Sunday evening at American University. A resident of Manchester in Carroll County, freshman swingman Jones was wearing a light gray sweatsuit and to his left were star point guard Darius Gardner and coach Mike Brennan.
At about 6:20 p.m., the CBS selection show announced that American, the Patriot League champions, were the No. 15 seed in the West Regional for March Madness and would face No. 2 seed Wisconsin on Thursday in Milwaukee for the Eagles' first tournament appearance in five years.
“It is surreal,” said Jones, sitting in the Mary Graydon Center just after the pairings were announced. “Just now hearing our names called on the national TV selection show, it actually hit home. ‘Wow, we are actually going to the NCAA tourney.’ I have been working to have this opportunity all of my life. It came to fruition tonight.
“I could not have envisioned this first year going any better than it has,” he added. “It has been incredibly fun to be a part of.”
It seemed like a long shot just a few months ago -– both for Jones to end up at Division I American and for the Eagles to gain an automatic bid to March Madness.
Jones, a former Mount St. Joseph standout who was part of two Baltimore Catholic League title teams under coach Pat Clatchey, had a scholarship offer from Maryland, Baltimore County but didn't think the school was the right fit academically. He considered Randolph-Macon College and Randolph College – a pair of Division III schools in Virginia.
“I was definitely close to going to one of those schools,” Jones said. “American came along late and I wanted to pursue playing at the highest level.”
Jones had contact with former American head coach Jeff Jones (no relation) before he took the job at Old Dominion University. Then Brennan, a former assistant at Georgetown who played at Princeton, was named the American coach last spring and began to recruit Jones.
The 6-foot-5 freshman enrolled at the northwest Washington campus last fall and became a key reserve for the Eagles as a walk-on. He has played in 25 of 32 games with two starts and is averaging 2.1 points and 1.8 rebounds for American, which was picked to finish ninth out of 10 teams in the Patriot League.
“Charles is one of the hardest workers I have been around,” Brennan said.“The guys call him the Energizer Bunny. He brings a lot of energy to the game. He has made a huge impact on this team. We are lucky to have him.”
Jones attended Hampstead Elementary and North Carroll Middle School and is the son of Charlie Jones Jr. and Karen Sollanek. His mother played basketball at Parkville High School and in college at Drexel. “She always likes to take credit for giving me the basketball genes,” Jones said.
And what about facing the Badgers in Milwaukee?
“I know they are a strong overall team. Any No. 2 seed is going to be strong,” Jones said. “They have a high-powered offense. It is going to be a challenge to get ready for them.”
While the Atlantic Coast Conference and Atlantic 10 have six teams in the tournament, schools in the Patriot League know they have to win the conference tourney title to make the NCAA event.
“It makes you appreciate the opportunity so much more,” Jones said.
Other teams from the region that made the tournament include Mount St. Mary’s, of Frederick County, and the University of Delaware, which won the Colonial Athletic Association title at the Baltimore Arena on March 10. Mount St. Mary’s will face Albany on Tuesday in Dayton in a First Four play-in game. The Mount roster includes sophomore Will Lyle, of St. Vincent Pallotti in Laurel. The No. 13-seeded Blue Hens will face No. 4 seed Michigan State on Thursday in the East Region. The top two scorers for Delaware are from Maryland high schools: Devon Saddler (Aberdeen, 19.7 points per game) and Davon Usher (Digital Harbor, 19.4).