With NCAAs ahead, who answers conference call? Coppin, Towson favored for titles


It was incorrectly reported in yesterday's editions of The Sun that there will be two "play-in" games for this season's National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament. In fact, there will be three "play-in" games.

For the state's Division I basketball teams, there were early-season struggles against nationally ranked teams and hard-fought league games. Now, it's conference tournament time, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament awaits the champions.

And those with the best shot at extending their seasons have familiar names.

Coppin State and Towson State, NCAA teams last year, have won regular-season titles and will enter their respective tournaments as No. 1 seeds.

But Navy, Morgan State, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Loyola and Maryland Eastern Shore have finished or figure to finish near the bottom of their conferences, thus drawing tough opponents in opening-round games.

Maryland (on NCAA probation) and Mount St. Mary's (not enough seasons in Division I) will not participate in conference tournaments.

When the season began, Coppin (18-9, 14-2 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) clearly had the best shot of repeating as tournament champion, with four starters returning to a team that finished 26-7 in 1989-90. After opening the conference season with a loss, the Eaglesdominated the league the rest of the way and open the MEAC tournament in Norfolk, Va., on Thursday against the winner of Wednesday's game between No. 8 UMES and No. 9 Bethune-Cookman.

"We won the regular season, but now everybody's coming after us," said Coppin coach Fang Mitchell. "There are quite a few teams playing well right now, and that means that anything can happen."

The path for Coppin will not be easy. South Carolina State, Delaware State and North Carolina A&T; can give the Eagles problems. And should the Eagles win the MEAC tournament, they would have to travel to the winner of the Southland Conference to take part in one of two "play-in" games that will feed two teams into the field of 64.

Even though Towson won its league going away, the Tigers (17-9, 10-2 in the East Coast Conference) still could be considered a surprise team. Junior guard Devin Boyd was the only returning starter, yet the Tigers opened the conference season with an ECC-record-tying nine straight wins.

With just seven teams in the ECC, Towson earned a first-round bye and Sunday will face the winner of Saturday's game between Drexel and Rider. A likely final would match Towson against Delaware -- a fierce rival with whom the Tigers split two games this season.

Although the Tigers have suffered three of their nine losses in February, they still have to be a favorite with the tournament being played in the Towson Center. Towson, which closed the ECC season with a loss at Delaware Thursday, rebounded with a win over a good Youngstown State team and will close the regular season tonight at Virginia.

"We scheduled the last two games because we didn't want that long of a break between the end of the conference season and the tournament," Towson coach Terry Truax said recently. "I think we'll be better off with a tough game to end the season, and Virginia will be that."

Coppin and Towson are the favorites, but the hottest team going into postseason play is UMBC. The Retrievers (5-21, 4-8 ECC) have won three straight and are playing inspired basketball at the right time.

The Retrievers, seeded fifth, will face No. 3 seed Hofstra Saturday.

Staggering into the tournamentwill be Loyola (12-15, 5-11 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference), which had two chances to clinch sixth place in the league, but lost both games. The Greyhounds, who had a six-game winning streak earlier this month, have lost four straight and are in seventh place. Depending on games tonight, the Greyhounds could drop into Friday's game between No. 8 and 9, with the winner taking on the No. 1 seed Saturday.

Morgan (6-21, 6-10 in the MEAC) had a chance of taking a two-game winning streak into the tournament, but the Tigers blew a 13-point lead in Saturday's loss to Howard. The seventh-seeded Bears still proved they could be dangerous with last week's win over North Carolina A&T; and will attempt to play the spoiler Thursday against second-seeded South Carolina State.

Navy (7-20) finished last in the Colonial Athletic Association with a 2-12 record and will draw top-seeded James Madison in Saturday's first-round game in Richmond, Va. The Midshipmen were one-point losers to James Madison last month in Annapolis, but suffered their worse conference loss of the season, 106-86, at James Madison last week.

"They made some adjustments to what we did and really pounded us on the boards," Navy coach Pete Herrmann said. "It's going to be a real test for us. At least it will be on a neutral court, and our players know they'll have to get up for this."

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