It was an anxious week for Coppin State as it awaited word o who it would be playing in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And judging from their reaction to their first-round opponent last night, the Eagles will go into March Madness with a load of confidence.
Coppin State (22-7) will make its second NCAA appearance against No. 11 Cincinnati (24-4) in an East Regional game that will match the best defensive team in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference against one of the best defensive teams in the nation. Coppin, the No. 15 seed, will play second-seeded Cincinnati on Friday at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., in a pairing that drew loud cheers from the players.
"Pressure. Tremendous defensive pressure," is what Coppin coach Fang Mitchell said after the pairings were announced. "They're a veryathletic team, and they will pressure you for 40 minutes."
Cincinnati, a loser in last year's Final Four to Michigan, is the regular-season and tournament champion of the Great Midwest Conference, but enters the NCAA tournament as an at-large team because the league does not receive an automatic bid. Led by guard Nick Van Exel, the Bearcats beat Memphis State, 77-72, for the tournament title on Saturday -- a game that Mitchell watched with keen interest.
"Van Exel is a tremendous player and Corey Blount [6-foot-10 center] is a good inside player," Mitchell said. "The key for us is how we handle their pressure."
The No. 15 seed for Coppin can be looked at as a tribute to a program that plays in a league that, according to computer rankings, is the weakest in the nation. The Eagles, with no seniors, rolled through conference play and the conference tournament with a 19-0 record and take a 16-game winning streak into the tournament -- the best in the nation among Division I teams.
In terms of size, the matchup against Cincinnati is probably the best for a Coppin team that lacks height. The other No. 2 seeds (Seton Hall, Arizona and Kansas) and the four No. 1 seeds (North Carolina, Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky) all boast big front lines.
"To be honest, to look at all of the teams we could have played we're not looking at a tremendous size disadvantage," Mitchell said. "They have Blount in the middle, but from there most of their guys are in the 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6 range."
Mitchell joined the players in a lounge in the Tawes Center on the West Baltimore campus to watch the pairings. The Coppin players burst into loud applause as their pairing was announced.
"We're very happy with who we're playing," said sophomore guard Sidney Goodman. "I haven't watched them that much this year, but I know that Van Exel is very good. But we feel confident that we'll be able to compete."
This is the second NCAA appearance for Coppin, which played in the 1990 tournament after going 18-1 against MEAC opponents. A No. 16 seed in that tournament, Coppin was beaten by top-seeded Syracuse, 70-48, in a first-round game.
That 1989-90 team, led by Larry Stewart, Reggie Isaac and Phil Booth, entered the tournament with an impressive 8-5 record in non-league games, including wins on the road against Maryland, Creighton and Toledo. This year's team had a less impressive 3-7 non-conference record, including losses at Kansas State, Boston College and Cal-Santa Barbara. The non-league wins this year were against Towson State, Buffalo and the College of Charleston.
The huge difference this year is depth. Nine Coppin players are averaging more than 15 minutes a game and Mitchell has been able to juggle his lineup during games in order to find the right combination.
"There's no star system -- everybody knows their role," said forward Stephen Stewart, the MEAC Newcomer of the Year and the Most Valuable Player in the conference tournament. "We're going to have to stick to our game. We've been working toward this all season."
Assistant coach Derek Brown and Mitchell planned to watch tapes of Cincinnati last night to prepare the Eagles for practice this afternoon.
"In practice we've just been going over our stuff," Mitchell said. "Our concentration level hasn't been what it should. Now that we know who we're playing, I look forward to things getting a lot better."
Where: Syracuse, N.Y.
When: Friday, time TBA
Rank: No. 11
Seeding: No. 2 in East
Line: Cincinnati by 25