It will be a curious mix of motivation when the East Coast Conference tournament begins tomorrow at Towson Center. Towson is pegged as the heavy favorite to repeat as champion, but almost every team brings something to the table.
Take UMBC, for example. Two weeks ago, the Retrievers were a puny 2-21. Then, abracadabra, they win four in a row. Coach Earl Hawkins pinned the turnaround on players finding their "niche" in the system. Walk-on point guard Dana Harris agreed, then fingered another possible explanation.
"Everyone has superstitions right now," Harris said, declining to name specifics. "Everyone has some little thing he's doing differently."
With Harris, it's not necessarily coincidental that the Retrievers' streak began after he broke his nose and was forced to wear a face mask.
"I wasn't a true believer," he said. "But if things are going right, there's no need to change. We're going in [to the tournament] with a lot of confidence, and it can take us all the way through."
UMBC's mindset notwithstanding, perhaps the two teams with the best chance of unseating Towson are Delaware and Drexel. Delaware, the coaches' preseason ECC pick, has won seven in a row. But Blue Hens coach Steve Steinwedel wants no part of the hot seat.
"I think Towson is the team to beat," he said. "Playing at home gives them an almost insurmountable advantage."
Drexel has won eight of 10 since going to zone defense. More significant, the Dragons ended a seven-game losing streak at Towson Center last month with a 78-75 victory.
Although Towson went 4-4 down the stretch, coach Terry Truax acknowledged the advantage of playing at home.
"UNLV is not in this tournament, and it's not at McHale Center in Tucson [where Arizona plays]," Truax said. "The reality is, some team will have to win three games away from home [to win the title], or Towson State will have to win two on its home court."
The extra day of rest could be critical to the Tigers (17-10), too. Devin Boyd, their point guard and leading scorer, suffered a hip-pointer last Monday at Virginia. He's expected to play in Sunday's semifinal game against the Hofstra-UMBC winner.
Boyd yesterday was named the ECC Player of the Year in a balloting of the seven coaches. He succeeds former teammate Kurk Lee, who won the award the past two years. Boyd was joined on the All-ECC team by teammate Chuck Lightening, Drexel's Jonathan Raab and Michael Thompson, and Delaware's Mark Murray. Truax was selected ECC Coach of the Year for the second straight year. Freshmen Matt Campbell and John James of Towson made the all-rookie team.
This is the last year the winner of the shrinking ECC will get an NTC automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.