With four starters returning from a team that went 26-7 and earned a berth in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, Coppin State began play this season as perhaps the state's best bet to make the NCAAs.
But the Eagles were the last state team to win a game and started the season with a 1-4 record (2-4 now, after a 78-60 win over Charleston Saturday). Despite that, Coppin coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell said there is no need to sound an alarm.
"We're coming along just fine," Mitchell said. "I think we're in really good shape, and I'm real happy about how the team has played with confidence."
Coppin was 5-2 at the start of last season and had posted road wins at Creighton, Toledo and Maryland. While the record is not comparable, the losses have not been against any stiffs. The Eagles have been beaten on the road by Tulsa (84-79), New Mexico State (76-68), Texas-El Paso (71-56) and 13th-ranked Oklahoma (98-79). Texas-El Paso beat Georgetown, 71-60, Saturday.
"We never worry about the losses in the beginning of the year. We know what we were out there for, and that's experience against some good teams," Mitchell said. "I feel losses can get down guys who haven't won. But we've done that, and our team understands what we're playing against.
"It doesn't take their confidence away," Mitchell added. "They know that when we play teams that are supposedly our caliber, that we're supposed to play well."
Forward Larry Stewart, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Player of the Year, and all-conference guard Reggie Isaac have gotten off to good starts, averaging 21.1 and 24 points, respectively. With guard Larry Yarbray and forward Michael Johnson contributing to the starting lineup and guard James Mazyck showing ability off the bench, the Eagles look to be in good shape by the time the conference season opens on Jan. 3 at South Carolina State.
"What we lack now is a vocal leader and we'll need somebody to do that before the year is out," Mitchell said. "Larry Stewart's an introvert, but he steps forward with his game rather than his mouth. Somebody will come along."
* It was more than 24 hours after the fact, but Mount St. Mary's coach Jim Phelan still couldn't believe the finish of his team's 72-71 loss to James Madison at Knott Arena. With the score tied at 70 with 22 seconds left, the Mountaineers had a chance for a final shot for the win or overtime. But senior Steve Kinney was fouled on a shot attempt and made just one of two free throws with six seconds left. And his failure to milk the clock allowed Dukes guard Kenny Brooks to go coast-to-coast after the miss and hit the game winner at the buzzer with his second field goal of the afternoon.
"I still can't believe we let them off the hook," Phelan said. "We lead for 25 minutes, and then they score with no time left for the win."
Despite the defeat, Phelan's injury-plagued Mountaineers (1-6) put up a strong performance in the first of six straight home games. And James Madison, loaded with eight seniors, may have been the toughest game of the lot.
"We did play well, but in the last 13 minutes, we made only three baskets," Phelan said. "But we had a positive performance from our big men. Everybody's concerned with our shooting [team shot 36.2 percent from the field on Saturday], and we need to get some points from somewhere."
The Mountaineers' next game is Wednesday against Holy Cross.
* UMBC was the only other local team in action over the weekend, losing at Iowa, 98-81. The Retrievers (1-7) trailed 61-29 at the half on the way to their longest losing streak since they lost eight straight in their first Division I season in 1986-87.
"We have to learn not to let anyone jump out on us like that, and to be more physical," UMBC coach Earl Hawkins said. "We always seem to get behind early and have to come back."
Bright spots in an otherwise dreary game: Freshman guard Skip Saunders, who had a team-high 18 points in just 14 minutes, and sophomore guard Melvin Swann, whose 10 points came on 4-for-4 shooting from the field.
"Both of them gave us a lift from the bench," said Hawkins of the two little-used reserves. "We need them to give us more consistent shooting from the outside."
Next up for the Retrievers is a game Saturday against the up-and-coming Loyola Greyhounds at the UMBC Fieldhouse. UMBC won both meetings against the Greyhounds last year, 95-84 and 67-66.
"Loyola's a much-improved team, and we need to be focused and prepared to play," Hawkins said. "Any time you play at home, it'll help. Right now we're road-weary."
* Game of the week (local): Coppin against Clemson at the Golden Panther Tournament in Miami. The Eagles are still gunning for a big win over a top-notch team and the Tigers could be that victim. But Clemson may not be looking past any opponents, especially after having its 29-game home winning streak broken Saturday in a 108-100 loss to North Carolina-Charlotte.
* Game of the week (national): Princeton (7-0) at UNLV (3-0). This Wednesday game could qualify for both the game of the week and the mismatch of the week. The strong, agile defending national champion against the slow, small Ivy League champion. But Princeton coach Pete Carril has a methodical coaching style that gives up-tempo teams fits, as in the 50-49 loss to Georgetown in the first round of the 1989 NCAA tournament.