The Coppin State Eagles, who finished 22-8 last season, went unbeaten in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and made their second trip to the NCAA basketball tournament, still are suffering an identity crisis.
"Teams we play on the road don't know how to pronounce 'Coppin,' and certainly don't know where we are from," junior guard Sidney Goodman said before tonight's game at the University of Oklahoma. "When I tell them we're from Baltimore, they say, 'You're kidding!' "
But traditional powers such as Virginia and Missouri, who had to stage last-minute rallies to beat the visiting Eagles this season, now realize playing Coppin State (5-4) is no laughing matter.
"We should have won both those games," said coach Fang Mitchell, who has compiled a 126-87 record since taking over the program in 1985. "It's frustrating to play as well as we did, especially against Missouri, and then give the game away by not executing down the stretch.
"But you can't win close games when you don't score in the last four minutes. We just didn't run our offense against their press and traps.
"We've got some talented players who believe they can win a game by themselves, and get away from what made us successful. We took too many gambles, on both ends of the floor, but I believe my players understand now they have to stay within a team concept."
Playing established teams on the road may not be the best way to celebrate the Christmas season, but Mitchell views this trip as a toughening process to prepare his team for conference play.
"We weren't really tested in our conference last year," he said. "We won a lot of blowouts. It's good for us to be involved in tight games. It teaches the team to play a lot smarter."
Mitchell has a veteran cast, with four returning starters headed by Goodman, a floor leader averaging 14.2 points, junior swingman Stephen Stewart (18.0) and three-point specialist Keith Carmichael (16.4).
The team gained a large measure of confidence competing in the NCAA tournament last March, playing heavily favored Cincinnati virtually even for a half before losing, 93-62. Cincinnati would progress to the quarterfinals before losing to eventual champion North Carolina.
"We're a much better team than last year," said Goodman. "Now if we beat the so-called big teams, I don't really consider it an upset.
"We've got experience, plus we've added size and depth with [6-foot-9, 275-pound center] Mario McGriff, who sat out last season."
The starting five is still relatively small by Division I standards, with junior center Michael Thomas the tallest at 6-8.
"We've been getting out-rebounded, and that's why McGriff is so important. He's been getting in early foul trouble. We've got to keep him on the floor, playing big minutes to really be effective."
Playing only 19 minutes a game, McGriff still leads the team in rebounding (5.6) while averaging 7.3 points. Stewart, the younger brother of Washington Bullets forward Larry Stewart, remains the Eagles' go-to guy with his ability to beat his defender off the dribble and his power moves inside.
"This past summer I really dedicated myself to playing 40 strong minutes a game, if need be," said Stewart, a 6-5, 230-pound Philadelphia native.
"I worked out several times a week with our wrestling coach, Kenny Taylor, lifting weights. By the end of the summer, my body fat had dropped from 15 to 8 [percent]."
If not in the weight room, Stewart was playing pickup games with his brother and other NBA players living in the Baltimore-Washington area.
"I worked a lot on improving my outside shooting technique," he said. "It was kind of erratic last year. Now I can blow by most big guys or post up guards inside. I can really see the difference in how I perform against major teams like Virginia and Missouri. And when McGriff is playing well, it frees things up for everyone else on the floor."
For Stewart, the difference between just making a token appearance in the NCAA and possibly raising a fuss this spring depends on the Eagles' supporting cast.
"Our veterans know what it takes to win," he said. "We still build our game around our pressing defense, forcing mistakes. But defense takes extra effort. We can tell the young guys what needs to be done, but once they actually get a taste of it, they'll start understanding."
COPPIN'S CLOSE CALLS
Nov. 26: Washington State 57, Coppin 55
In the San Juan Shootout, Sidney Goodman's three-pointer with three seconds left cut Washington State's lead to 57-55, but the Cougars then ran out the clock.
Dec. 6: Coppin 65, Wichita State 64
Keith Carmichael scored six straight points in a span of 44 seconds for the Eagles, and his last basket, a driving reverse layup with 27 seconds remaining, provided the final margin.
Dec. 9: Virginia 63, Coppin 61
No. 22 Virginia got two free throws from freshman guard Mike Powell with one second left to win it. Powell had followed up his
own miss and was fouled by Goodman.
Dec. 19: Missouri 64, Coppin 63
Missouri scored the final 10 points of the game, winning it on Lamont Frazier's leaning 10-footer with three seconds remaining.