Coppin State reigned as the unofficial champion of Baltimore-area Division I college basketball last season after roaring through the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference undefeated in 19 games and recording a 22-8 record.
Now Coppin has gotten the jump on the competition again.
Coach Fang Mitchell has launched practice hours ahead of anyone else, sending the Eagles through their first drills starting at midnight and following up with a 7 a.m. session this morning.
"It wasn't Midnight Madness," Mitchell insisted. "It was just normal for here. Only the strong survive."
By Monday when Morgan State joins the preseason workout schedule, all area collegiate men's teams will be in official preparation for the 1993-94 season.
It will be the campaign of adjustment to the NCAA's 35-second clock, the MEAC tournament in Baltimore and, as usual, a race to win respective leagues and qualify for the postseason show.
Mitchell has constructed a powerhouse pre-league schedule for the Eagles that includes trips to the San Juan Shootout (Washington State in the first round), Kansas State, Wichita State, Virginia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and Boston College and home games with Towson and Loyola of Chicago.
"I took some gambles, and I'm challenging our young people," he said. "It is a tremendous task. They want to play the best. Now we're going to have to find a way to play hard all the time."
He has four starters and seven lettermen, including MEAC Rookie of the Year Stephen Stewart, back to tackle the chore.
But he has dismissed No. 2 scorer Tariq Saunders and guard Melvin Roberts from the team, and 6-8 Coleman Scott has decided not to play.
However, the recruiting class is excellent with point guard Allen Watson, forward Jamahal Redmond from Philadelphia's Simon Gratz High, the mythical national champ, and 6-10, 270-pound Mario McGriff in the forefront.
Towson State's quest in its second Big South Conference season is a replacement for point guard Devin Boyd, the school's all-time scoring and assist leader.
The Tigers (18-9 overall) won their first regular-season Big South title with a 14-2 record, then flopped in the tournament, losing to eighth-seeded Winthrop to break their three-year run of conference crowns.
"It's tough to replace what Devin has meant to the program with his play and leadership," coach Terry Truax said.
"We've been fortunate at that position for a lot of years with him and Lewis Waller."
Truax will resist the temptation to move Scooter Alexander, his top shooting guard, to the point and will choose from Ralph Blalock, Quintin Moody and highly recruited freshman Michael Keyes.
There is a solid corps of returning veterans in Alexander, forward Matt Campbell and center John James, and 6-9 transfer Jason Crump figures prominently.
The backcourt again looms as Towson's deepest area, but the lack of experience may tell at the point in the early going.
Added depth is the reason for optimism at the city's other Big South contender, UMBC.
"We haven't had that in the past, and injuries really hurt us," said coach Earl Hawkins, whose team was 12-16 and 7-9 in the league last season.
"There is also a good group of returning players with a lot of experience."
The senior leaders will be the inside-outside tandem of center Sonique Nixon and guard Skip Saunders, and Hawkins has added size with 7-2 Pascal Fleury (transfer from Georgetown) and 6-9 Vladimir Milosevic.
The big void is at the point, vacated by Dana Harris. If Hawkins can fill that spot adequately, the Retrievers could continue the hot streak they began at the end of 1992-93. This is a team to watch.
No one is happier with the two-day-earlier start of practice this year than the only new coach in the area, Loyola's Skip Prosser.
makes a big difference to us with a new staff and new system," said Prosser, who has inherited a squad that is coming off the worst season in school history (2-25). "Practice time is like gold."
Prosser sees a good start as imperative for a team needing a confidence boost after a year of forward B. J. Pendleton against the world. The Greyhounds have a chance against a pre-league schedule without any genuine national powers.
Loyola can be a factor in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference if guard Tracy Bergan and forward Michael Reese (second-semester returnee) can shake off the rustiness of 19 months off, and three freshmen -- Darius Johnson, Milton Williams and Julian Tate -- mature quickly.
The Midshipmen (8-19) are coming off a poor season, but have four starters back and two outstanding plebes, guards Brian Walker and Scott Holden.
Coach Don DeVoe hopes Wes Cooper, the top scorer, can adjust to playing more outside after he was double-teamed often last season. He said the plebes "are exceptionally fine players, but let's don't make a big production out of them yet. They haven't done anything."
The schedule includes a home-and-home series with Air Force, the academies' first basketball meetings since 1985.
The Mount (13-15) won 12 of its last 21, including its first Northeast Conference tournament game, and put coach Jim Phelan over the 700-win mark.
Although Kevin Booth and two other starters are gone, the Mountaineers have a deep backcourt headed by Chris McGuthrie and two outstanding additions up front, 7-foot Randy Edney and 6-6 Larry Townes.
Phelan also has a top prospect, point man Riley Inge, in the wings for the second semester. He is so good he could move all-NEC McGuthrie to shooting guard.
"What we need is to regain the consistency we had at the latter part of the year," Phelan said.
Like everyone else in the MEAC, Morgan State (9-17) and Maryland-Eastern Shore (12-15) are trying to find ingredients to dethrone Coppin.
The Bears tied for second in the league with a 9-7 record and will be host to the MEAC tournament.
But coach Michael Holmes will have to wait until the second semester for several ineligible players, and Malik White, his leading inside man, is gone.
MEAC steals and assist leader Vince Langston leads a corps of three returning starters, and big Jarrad Smith still anchors the middle.
Look for Damian Zellous, a guard who played at Potomac State, to make an impact.
The Hawks made noticeable progress under Rob Chavez and have three returning starters, headed by guard Zack Allison.
Three freshmen are 6-7 or taller, helping to solve the Hawks' biggest problem last year -- lack of size.