As the early-season losses began to pile up for Coppin State and Towson State, the question was whether Baltimore's National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament teams from last season had what it took to repeat.
Coppin needed leadership, and Towson needed scorers. Now, with less than a month to go before their conference tournaments, both apparently have overcome those obstacles and are hoping their recent play again translates into NCAA berths.
Towson (14-7, 8-0), which started the season 4-5, will put its 13-gamewinning streak over East Coast Conference foes on the line tomorrow when it is host to Central Connecticut. The Tigers' eight-game winning streak was broken Monday by Loyola, 85-84.
The teams have taken different paths to their recent successes. The Eagles have not had a game closer than 10 points in their streak, winning by an average of nearly 24. For the Tigers, four of the eight conference victories were by six or fewer.
After beating Delaware State, 97-71, Wednesday, Coppin coach Fang Mitchell was registering his usual complaints.
"We still need that killer instinct," said Mitchell after his team allowed a 25-point lead to dip to 15. "We had the team down, and we keep letting them get back into the game."
But, when pressed, even Mitchell said his club has been putting awayMEAC teams better than last season, when the Eagles finished 26-7, 15-1.
"It had to take me a while to adjust and understand that this is not last year's team," Mitchell said. "This team has an identity of its own. And I realized that I should just go with the flow."
The constants in the flow have been guard Reggie Isaac and forward Larry Stewart. Isaac is 16th in the nation in scoring with a league-leading 24.8 per game, and Stewart is third in the country in rebounding (13.6) and third in the MEAC in scoring (23.5).
Center Larry McCollum's rebounding and guard's Larry Yarbray's leadership also have helped. The bonus has been the young players, with freshmen Tariq Saunders and James Mazyck, sophomore Michael Johnson and junior Darren Woods playing key roles.
"It's a totally different team. This team is deeper and a lot quicker than last year," Mitchell said. "Last year's team was more disciplined. These kids feel more confident playing this way."
Mitchell said he saw a need for a vocal leader, like Phil Booth last season, but is resigned that it won't happen.
"We have silent leaders, and it's as simple as that," Mitchell said. "We're getting more now from Stewart than from the beginning of the year. He's out there yelling, when normally you don't hear him at all."
The Eagles will play four of their final five regular-season games on the road -- where Coppin is 4-8 -- but Mitchell said his team could benefit from that.
"The road toughens you up," he said. "It's pretty good we do have to go on the road before the [MEAC] tournament [Feb. 28-March 2 in Norfolk, Va.]."
At Towson, coach Terry Truax said his team still has room to improve despite its best conference start in school history.
"Our team is playing pretty good -- I wouldn't say great," said Truax, whose team has won 10 of its past 12. "I don't think there's any dangerthat we've peaked. You hope you're playing your best basketball the last two weeks of February so you get some momentum going into the tournament."
After Kurk Lee took his 26-point average into the National Basketball Association, Truax had his doubts as to who was going to score this season. But Devin Boyd (21.7), Terrance Jacobs (16.8) and Chuck Lightening (15.4) have stepped in.
"I really can't define chemistry. But if there is such a thing, the chemistry of this team is better," Truax said. "They seem to like each other and pull more for each other than last year.
Also playing key roles have been Lewis Waller, the team's lone senior, and freshmen Matt Campbell and John James. Sophomores William Griffin and Larry Brown have been starting games, but James and Campbell have been finishing them on the front line.
Probably the biggest key for Towson has been defense. Boyd's 3.2 steals per game rank sixth in the nation, and the Tigers have been keeping teams under 45 percent shooting from the field (opponents shot 48.4 percent last season).
Towson's end-of-the-season schedule is not void of tough games. After home contests against Central Connecticut and Drexel, the Tigers play three of their final four on the road, beginning with a possible first-place showdown at Hofstra next Saturday and ending at Virginia on Feb. 25. The ECC tournament starts March 2 at the Towson Center.