When Coppin State travels to Philadelphia to play St. Joseph's tonight in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament, it will be the first meeting between the two schools.
But the teams are hardly strangers.
Eighty percent of Coppin State's roster, along with the entire coaching staff, comes from the Philadelphia-South Jersey area. Most of the players from Coppin State and St. Joe's have played with or against each other in summer leagues.
"They know our players well. We know their players well," St. Joe's coach John Griffin said. "Even though Coppin State is coming up from Baltimore, this is going to feel very much like a game between two Philadelphia schools."
Said Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell, whose team is a 10 1/2 -point underdog: "I've seen their [St. Joe's] kids play, and I understand the talent level. They won't throw a lot of size at us, but they have a lot of athletes and they're a very good defensive team. We should be able to match up with them pretty well."
Their styles are similar. Neither team is particularly big. Both are comfortable in a half-court game, although each uses defensive pressure skillfully to create easy points in transition. Both rely on offensive balance and the three-point shot. Both have played rough schedules.
Coppin State (20-9) blew a 17-game winning streak and an automatic NCAA berth by losing to North Carolina A&T; in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament title game. The Eagles earned their second NIT berth partly by playing titans on the road. They beat LSU and NCAA-tournament bound Ball State and lost at Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Long Beach State.
St. Joe's (17-11), which plays in the high-profile Atlantic 10 Conference, narrowly missed its first NCAA tournament berth in nine seasons. Despite beating five NCAA tournament teams, the Hawks are making their 10th trip to the NIT. Two losses to St. Bonaventure and an early-season loss to Monmouth hurt.
Coppin State will have to contend with an attack that starts with 6-foot-7 forwards Reggie Townsend (leading scorer) and Carlin Warley (leading rebounder) and extends out to the wing, where the Hawks have made 35.2 percent of their 463 three-point attempts (16.5 per game).
The Eagles, who haven't played in 11 days, are looking for an encore from a terrific senior class.
Forward Stephen Stewart, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, won his second MEAC Player of the Year award. Point guard Sidney Goodman is the best free-throw shooter in school history and the Eagles' all-time steals leader. Center Michael Thomas is the school's best shot blocker. Guard Keith Carmichael is the best three-point shooter in school history. And forward Tariq Saunders is coming off a superb MEAC tournament, in which he scored 55 points in three games, hitting 13 of 17 three-point shots.
COPPIN STATE (20-9) at ST. JOSEPH'S (17-11)
NIT FIRST ROUND
Site: Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse, Philadelphia
Radio: WOLB (1010 AM)
Outlook: No one in the Hawks' rotation is taller than 6 fee 7, and four players average in double figures, led by junior F Reggie Townsend (14.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 58.5 field-goal percentage), and senior F Carlin Barley (12.0 ppg, team-high 10.6 rpg). Junior Mark Bass (11.6 ppg) has hit 43 percent of his three-pointers. Coppin will look to get the ball inside to F Stephen Stewart (14.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and C Michael Thomas (9.6 ppg, 58.6 field-goal percentage) while working for shots on the wings.