The Eagles got what they wanted late last night, a telephone call from the National Invitation Tournament. What they didn't necessarily ask for was a first-round game Thursday (8:05 p.m.) at Southwest Missouri, a team little known in the East but quite familiar to the aficionados.
It is one of 16 first-round games being played in the NIT. The second and third rounds also will be played at campus sites, the second round on March 18-19 and the third round on March 20-21. The semifinals and final will be played at Madison Square Garden March 25 and 27.
In this, its first year in the Missouri Valley Conference, Southwest Missouri went 21-11, its sixth straight 20-win season. It finished second in the regular-season standings and lost in the title game to Creighton. The team from Springfield, Mo., had ruled the Mid-Continent Conference the four previous years, going to the NCAA tournament each year.
The Bears lost in the first round to UNLV by four points in 1988; to Seton Hall by nine in 1989, the year the Pirates went to the final; and by 13 to North Carolina last year. In 1987, its first trip to the Division I tournament, Southwest Missouri won a first-round game over Clemson, then lost by four to Kansas.
That team went 28-6, and one of its victims in December 1986 was Mitchell's first Coppin State team, by an 84-52 count.
"We know we're going into somebody else's gym, and that that somebody is awfully tough," Mitchell said. "Nonetheless, we're very happy to be in this tournament. We were disappointed that we weren't going to the NCAA, and this is like giving our seniors an opportunity to redeem themselves."
Both teams are powered by potent senior forwards. Coppin State's Larry Stewart, a two-time Player of the Year in the MEAC, averages 24.0 points and 13.6 rebounds. Southwest Missouri's Ryan Thornton is at 14.3 and 6.5, respectively.
Daryl Reid, a 6-foot-2 senior, leads the Bears with a 16.3 average.
Included in Southwest Missouri's wins this season was an 81-57 rout of Morgan State on Dec. 19. It was belated revenge for the 1974 NCAA Division II championship game, when Morgan State beat the Bears.
Vanderbilt isn't back to defend its NIT title, having earned a berth in the NCAAs. Other first-round NIT matchups send James Madison to Providence, George Washington to South Carolina and Tulsa to Oklahoma.