Coppin's seed sowed on the road


CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Assuming Coppin State wins its conference title, the NCAA tournament committee will see only the score:

Virginia 63, Coppin 61.

A victory might have meant the difference between a No. 15 and a No. 14 seed in the NCAAs. A victory might have meant playing a team ranked in the top 16 instead of the top eight.

It's a huge difference, but Coppin is still looking for a major upset as it continues its annual play-for-pay December swing -- the road trip from hell.

The only thing guaranteed is a fat paycheck -- Coppin commands as much as $35,000 for serving as a designated opponent -- but this is a team that wants, and deserves, more.

"I'm very tired of losing these games -- very, very tired," point guard Sidney Goodman said. "It was like butter slipping out of our hands. We knew we were going to win."

Coppin led No. 22 Virginia 36-34 at halftime, and 59-58 with 56.9 seconds left. The Cavaliers prevailed only when freshman Mike Powell hit two foul shots with one second to go.

It doesn't get any crueler: Powell, one of the players helping to replace injured point guard Cory Alexander, has yet to sink a basket in four college games.

The Eagles will get other upset chances -- Loyola-Chicago at home, Missouri, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and Boston College on the road. But how often will they come this close?

The question is critical, because with a decent seed, Coppin is capable of winning an NCAA tournament game. The last state team to pull off such a miracle was Maryland in 1988.

Coppin hits the road for three reasons -- the money, the experience and the NCAA seed. Its power rating will start to decline the moment it begins its weak Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schedule.

Last night's defeat actually boosted its rating, because teams get a four-point advantage on the road. But the Eagles must start winning these games, or they'll be doomed to a No. 15 or 16 seed.

"I thought about that last year after we lost to Cincinnati," said junior forward Stephen Stewart, referring to Coppin's 93-66 loss in the first round of the NCAAs.

"I realized if we played harder earlier in the season we maybe would have gotten a higher seed. But last year, we were just trying to jell. This year, we're looking to win."

That's why last night was so frustrating -- it seemed the perfect opportunity for Coppin (4-3) to defeat a highly regarded opponent.

The Eagles won at Wichita State on Monday, but that was against a team starting three freshmen. Earlier, they lost by 19 at Kansas State, and by two to Washington State -- a team that has gone on to beat Michigan State, Marquette and Alabama.

The Cavaliers (3-1) are a ranked ACC power, but without Alexander, they're not the same team. University Hall was slightly more than half-full. It got loud in the second half, but Coppin has played in more intimidating arenas.

If only the outcome were different.

None of these December games will matter if Coppin can't win the MEAC tournament in March, but that's almost a foregone conclusion.

"I'd be shocked if they weren't in the NCAA tournament," Virginia coach Jeff Jones said.

Of course, it's one thing to get in, it's another to win. Since 1990, Coppin has been routed by Syracuse and Cincinnati as a No. 15 seed, and Towson State has lost to Oklahoma and Ohio State as a No. 16 seed.

How important is the seed?

Only two No. 15 seeds have managed upsets since the tournament expanded to 64 teams -- Richmond beat Syracuse in '91, and Santa Clara beat Arizona in '93. No No. 16 seed has ever won a game.

"Ask Southern if there's a difference," Coppin State coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell said, knowing that Southern upset Georgia Tech as a No. 13 seed last March.

Ideally, Coppin would get the same respect from the tournament committee if it wins the MEAC for the third time in four years.

The problem is, it isn't enough for the Eagles to go 19-0 against the MEAC, as they did in winning the regular-season title and conference tournament last season.

Obviously, Mitchell can't start worrying about seedings yet. Even if he beats a Missouri or a Oklahoma, losing in the MEAC tournament is possible -- and so much else is beyond his control.

His team is so close. But in March, when the NCAA tournament committee announces its seedings, close won't be good enough.

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