Fang Mitchell is moaning, but he isn't getting any sympathy from his fellow coaches in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Coppin State has lost one game in the MEAC over the past three seasons, but Mitchell cringed when his fellow coaches picked the Eagles to finish second this time. Don't they comprehend that Coppin State lost five starters? Don't they know that Mitchell has only two players who have worn an Eagles uniform?
"For them to have me where they've got me, with all the problems we've had?" Mitchell said. "The MEAC coaches, sometimes they forget there is a thing called reality."
Actually, a thing called history played a part in the preseason poll.
Entering his 10th season in Baltimore, Mitchell has made Coppin State into the MEAC's premier program, but the Eagles were supposed to be grounded four years ago. They had gone to an NCAA tournament and a National Invitation Tournament, but Larry Stewart and Reggie Isaac were gone, and the MEAC coaches tabbed Coppin State for a seventh-place finish.
The Eagles finished in the middle of the MEAC pack in 1991-92, but Mitchell began putting together the pieces of a puzzle that, over the past three seasons, the rest of the conference rarely solved. The Eagles went 47-1 in the MEAC, and hung more NCAA and NIT banners in the Coppin Center.
Gone, however, are Stewart's brother, Stephen, a two-time MEAC Player of the Year; Tariq Saunders, another baseline artist; the sublime backcourt duo of Keith Carmichael and Sidney Goodman; and part-time starter Michael Thomas.
When Trent Nicholas, 6 feet 8, didn't pass his physical because of a heart condition and Mario McGriff, the 300-pound center, and Mitchell had a spat on the second day of practice, it meant that point guard Allen Watson and perimeter reserve Kyle Locke were the only returnees.
If Mitchell is worried, his players aren't. Three transfers, twsophomores who were academically ineligible last season and four freshmen will make their debuts tonight against Division III Lincoln in a rare opener at home. Coppin State may sputter through December, but it is brimming with potential and confidence.
"We're a new generation, but from last year's team to this year's, I think we're more talented," sophomore guard Antoine Brockington said. "We've just got to prove it [to Mitchell]."
Brockington is Mitchell's latest steal from the Philadelphia-Camden, N.J., area, and two years of inactivity seem to have added to his explosiveness. He was too old to play at Northeast High in Philadelphia two years ago, and didn't meet the freshman eligibility standards last season. Kareem Lewis, 6-7, is another sophomore who sat out last season because of academics.
Come January, all three transfers could be starting. Terquin Mott, who averaged 10.6 points and 6.0 rebounds for La Salle two years ago, gives the Eagles some savvy in the middle. Reggie Welch, a swing forward who played with Goodman at Woodrow Wilson High in Camden, was averaging 11.1 points and 3.3 rebounds when he left Cleveland State in January 1994.
Julian King, maybe the Eagles' most versatile player, doesn't boast the same statistical credentials, but at Temple he sat behind Eddie Jones and Aaron McKie, one of the best backcourts ever in the Atlantic 10. King, who didn't come to Coppin State until January, must sit out the first five games.
"The transfers are all gambles," Mitchell said. "They had a problem elsewhere, one way or another. In order for us to be successful, they've got to come forward and give us some stability."
That is also the charge of Locke and Watson, who must bring the pieces together. Watson said he isn't concerned about the Eagles' scoring, but Mitchell berates them daily about the demands of playing defense in Division I. He was provided with negative reinforcement in their final exhibition, when an AAU team schooled them for 113 points.
There is another area in which Coppin State can improve. It fell flat in the past two MEAC tournaments at Morgan State, losing in the quarterfinals to the Bears in 1994 and in last season's final to North Carolina A&T.;
The Eagles' 30-game home winning streak is the nation's longest, but Mitchell takes as much pride in the road warrior mentality. Perhaps a change of venue that will take the MEAC tournament to Tallahassee, Fla., will help Coppin State return to the NCAAs.