With one month to go before the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference basketball tournament returns to Baltimore after a 19-year absence, enthusiasm surrounding the tournament seems to be building, based on early ticket sales reports.
But even if the MEAC tournament comes off successfully, the timing of the men's championship game has cast doubt on where the winner will wind up in the NCAA tournament, particularly if the MEAC winner is, as expected, Coppin State.
After preliminary games at Morgan State, the men's MEAC title game will be played at 7:30 p.m. on March 13 at the Baltimore Arena, where it will be televised by ESPN. That's one hour after the NCAA men's tournament selection committee completes its seedings of the 64-team field.
Because the MEAC is one of the nation's weaker leagues -- last week's College Basketball Conference Power Index listed it 30th out of the country's 33 Division I conferences -- the league doesn't figure to attract more than one team to the national tournament.
And with Coppin State as the prohibitive favorite to win the MEAC tournament, where would that leave the Eagles in the NCAA tournament? Will the selection committee reserve a 16th seed for the MEAC winner, thus leaving a victorious Coppin State stuck in the worst position? Or will the committee, anticipating a Coppin State victory, reserve a higher seed for the MEAC champion, as a reward for the Eagles' tough non-league schedule?
"We have to leave one spot open [because the MEAC winner receives an automatic tournament bid]. Beyond that, we have no way of knowing [about Coppin State] right now," said Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel, one of the selection committee's nine members. "That's not a risk we can assume. Leagues that conduct their championships after we select the ++ teams run some degree of risk. They know that.
"Strength of schedule is certainly something we take into account," Crouthamel said. "Everything that is positive, we look at. Institutionally, we look across the board."
MEAC commissioner Ken Free, who moved the title game from && the afternoon to accommodate ESPN and give the MEAC national exposure, served on the NCAA selection committee for five years. He plans to ask the committee to treat Coppin State as a special case. Free said he figures that the Eagles, who have gone to the national tournament twice as a 15th seed, could get a regional seeding as high as 12th.
"I'd like them to run Coppin through the selection system on its own individual merits, rather than running the conference through the system," Free said. "That will help reward Coppin for a good season and a tough schedule."
The Eagles, who were undefeated in the MEAC last season, are 10-0 in conference play, 16-7 overall this season. They haven't lost a conference game since 1992. And their losses include a one-point defeat at No. 15 Missouri (16-2), the leader of the Big Eight, and a two-point defeat at Virginia, an Atlantic Coast Conference title contender.
Free also is hoping the committee does something similar to last year, when the Southwestern Athletic Conference played its tournament title game after the national tournament draw. The committee awarded the SWAC winner a 13th seed. Southern, the eventual SWAC champion, then upset Georgia Tech in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Charles Harris, athletic director at Arizona State and a member of the selection committee, said: "There are a lot of moving parts here. We can't fathom all of the pieces. I can't tell you we'll do with Coppin what we did with the SWAC last year. We wipe the slate clean. There is no carry-over."
Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell sounded more concerned about his team's recent play than the NCAA tournament draw. Although Mitchell said he hoped the Eagles rated "around a 14" seed, he said he hasn't thought about it much.
"My concern is getting this team ready to play the way they're capable," Mitchell said. "There are [MEAC] teams capable of beating us. If we got stuck with a 16th seed, I don't know what we'd do in that situation, but I'm not worried about it."
In the meantime, the Eagles will concentrate on maintaining their perfect record against the MEAC, then winning a conference tournament that has begun to generate interest. According to Melvin Bilal, the chairman of the Baltimore City Host Committee for the MEAC tournament, more than 3,000 tickets have been sold.
So far, about $3,000 worth of tickets have been purchased by small businesses in the city. Most MEAC schools have requested a second set of tickets. Originally, packets of 400 tickets are sent to each school.
"Somebody asked me for tickets at a birthday party the other night. The mayor is talking to business people. People want tickets," Bilal said. "At first, we were a little concerned [about ticket sales]. But activity is really starting to pick up."