Poor state of basketball affairs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Somehow, the 1990s boom for area men's Division I college basketball teams suddenly became a bust.

With conference championship tournaments on the horizon, only UMBC appears to have a legitimate chance to advance to the NCAA lineup for reasons as diverse as the schools involved.

The locals are definitely out of the express lane.

Excluding Maryland - which is in a league of its own - and 17-8 UMBC - a solid contender for the Northeast Conference title - the combined record of the state's other seven Division I teams is 42-138.

UMES (11-15) is the only other school that is on track to approach its final record of last season (12-16).

Moreover, four of the state's teams - Morgan State, Loyola College, Coppin State and Mount St. Mary's - have been consistently ranked in the bottom 10 of the Rating Percentage Index in recent weeks (the RPI is derived from three component factors and is used by the NCAA as a tool for selection of at-large teams and seeding for the NCAA basketball tournament). Those ratings sharply contrast with the 11 NCAA Division I tournament appearances the schools made in the '90s, three each by Coppin and Navy, two by Towson and Mount St. Mary's and one by Loyola.

The Eagles even won a game as a No. 15 seed in 1997, Coppin shocking Top 20 South Carolina in the first round and nearly making the Sweet 16 before losing a one-point game to Texas.

Why are so many teams struggling so badly at the same time?

'Bad mix' at Coppin

The biggest tumble has come at Coppin, the little school that could when athletic director/coach Fang Mitchell was mining the Philadelphia-New Jersey area for hard-to-find nuggets.

Now, the team is mired on the unfamiliar bottom of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference standings, rated No. 322 in the RPI, and with no relief in sight.

Longtime local college personality Paul Baker, one-time coach at the University of Baltimore and Wheeling College, said he believes Mitchell is a victim of his own success. Michell has had difficulty recruiting players who fit into his philosophy.

"It's very hard to master a high level over a period of time," Baker said. "You can't have champagne on a beer budget. Fang is a master disciplinarian and shrewd judge of talent who's swimming upstream against the tide of restlessness of young people."

It has been a tragic year for Mitchell, whose wife, Yvonne, died suddenly last month.

On the court, the Eagles haven't found a replacement for All-MEAC forward Joe Brown, a proven scorer, and are straining for offensive consistency with senior point guard Rasheem Sims, the team's leader, on the shelf with a broken foot since December.

And Sims was the only remaining link to Mitchell's Philadelphia ties, which made his program the prototype for the MEAC for almost a decade.

"We're working on that problem," said Mitchell, who began to entrust recruiting to his assistants. "Philadelphia has been down the last couple of years and we went in another direction. We should have stayed with it.

"Now, we've just got a bad mix. And, when you lose your general [Sims], and go down to your third point guard, you're in trouble."

Mitchell, an old-school coach, has an even-handed approach toward discipline: Break the rules and you're suspended, no matter what your status is on the team.

"Our school is the same, the arena is the same, the coaches are the same," he said. "The only difference is the players. They lack a hungriness and love for the game. We have spoiled young people who've been catered to. We have to go out and recruit people who want to fight you right down to the wire.

"The big boys always get the best [players], but we were always in the cracks. Now, you've got to worry about not only talent, but attitude, too. Responsibility is lacking."

Towson pipeline clogged

New coaches, new systems and new approaches have forced adjustments at both Towson and Morgan State and, to a lesser degree, Loyola.

Towson has also been confronted with a new and tougher league, the Colonial Athletic Association, but is showing recent improvement under first-year leader Michael Hunt.

"We stepped up a level and got a totally new system," said Hunt, who wants to upgrade recruiting in local high schools, the secret to the program's success when he was an assistant under Terry Truax.

"I think the academic standards raised by the NCAA hurt some of the local kids, so we looked elsewhere."

During the Truax era, assistant Jim Meil had a pipeline and strong rapport with local coaches and families, helping to bring the likes of Devin Boyd (Walbrook), Kennell Jones (Poly), Kurk Lee (Dunbar), Scooter Alexander (Dunbar) and Kelly Williamson (Calvert Hall) to the program.

"There has to be a coordinated effort with the administration, athletic department, everybody, to try to do everything you can to get these local prospects," said Truax, who led the Tigers to two NCAA tournaments.

"There's a lot of peer pressure on these kids and it took about four years before we made inroads, then we got a lot of them to transfer back home. I don't think we would have gotten Scooter if we hadn't already had Kurk and Devin. It takes time."

"Unfortunately, a lot of young men are being advised to look elsewhere," Hunt said. "They use the locals as a safety net measure. They think they can't get to the pro leagues if they go to a local college.

"But the opportunity is there at all the local schools. It just takes a special type to go to a program that's down and bring it up."

Hunt was not hired until April, so his recruiting opportunities were limited this season.

"I think Michael Hunt has made a lot of progress. I'm quite encouraged," Towson athletic director Wayne Edwards said.

Morgan in deep hole

Morgan is undergoing a similar transition under former pro coach Butch Beard, who is trying to upgrade a program that has been in the dumps since the late '70s with a thin layer of talent.

Beard was also handed a disadvantage in the recruiting game after being hired last summer.

"We don't score on a consistent basis, so our defense has to be almost perfect," said Beard. "We just need more talent, better athletes and a little more will. We let things bother us too easily.

"I will guarantee that I will push a little harder in the preseason than I did this year, push them to really hate me."

Attitude is another difficulty for Morgan, which has changed coaches six times since the last winning season under Aaron Johnson in 1979.

"It's hard to know how to win when you haven't done it for so long," Beard said.

Stability missing at Loyola

Since 1974, Loyola has undergone 11 coaching changes; the average tenure for a head coach in the '90s is two years.

"I think we made a couple of mistakes in coaches," athletic director Joe Boylan said. "Sometimes, the one you pick doesn't turn out to be the right one for the time."

Lately, the Greyhounds have prospered only under Skip Prosser - now at Wake Forest - by winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference crown with two fifth-year seniors (Michael Reese and Tracy Bergan) in the lineup.

Second-year Loyola coach Scott Hicks is attempting to build a foundation with youth after one of his most promising young players, John Reimold, transferred.

"Out of 200 minutes, we play freshmen 90 and three sophomore redshirts 50," Hicks said. "We've had extreme inexperience and if we don't get off to a good start, it's hard to keep the starters out, so fatigue sets in."

Simply put, Loyola is a poor shooting team, hovering around 36 percent from the field.

"We need some shooters and the players we have to become better offensively. We just don't have a great margin for error," Hicks said. "On the flip side, we return almost everybody."

The MAAC's grueling schedule hasn't been kind to such an inexperienced team either. Loyola's burden has included two separate trips to Buffalo to play Niagara and Canisius, back-to-back games against the same team and a home game in Trenton, N.J.

Mount roster takes hit

Entering his 48th season, the Man of the Mount, Jim Phelan, appeared set to contend in the NEC. Then, the bottom fell out with center Melvin Whitaker suffering a season-ending ankle injury and the team's other big talent, Keith Price, failing to make it academically.

The Mount was down to seven able-bodied players and was practicing with team managers and volunteer coaches. Later in the season, longtime assistant Don Anderson was dismissed for a rules violation.

"It's been a tough year," said Phelan. "You think you have the nucleus and all of a sudden it disappears. You have to get that special player who can lift you, the type the big Division I's don't recruit. Somebody who can perform better than everybody thought."

Like Paul Edwards (1983-87), who really didn't fit a position but knew how to win. Or Chris McGuthrie (1993-96), the smallish guard who led the team into its first NCAA tournament.

"We've had a problem with people performing academically. Some of them just don't do it," Phelan said. "And you can't compromise the standards of the teachers if there is no motivation. Basketball isn't everything."

"It's a shame what's happened at the Mount," Baker said. "Phelan has tremendous pride and I know he doesn't want to go out this way."

No defense at Navy

Academics are not a problem at Navy, where the team has been an almost-annual Patriot League contender since Don DeVoe arrived. But it is getting tougher, with American University joining Holy Cross as schools offering athletic scholarships.

The Midshipmen are allowing an uncommonly high total of points and do not have the firepower to outscore a lot of teams. Consequently, they are undergoing their first losing season since DeVoe's first year, 1992-93.

"There's never been a time when this team just bowed its neck to play defense," DeVoe said. "We've struggled with putting on pressure. Unless we have an uncommonly big lead, we are vulnerable."

Navy misses the presence of the graduated Williams duo, Chris and John. The current team has no genuine go-to offensive player like Chris, nor a stellar defensive stopper for the other team's big scorer like John.

And the deep bench that DeVoe commonly uses to wear down opponents in the second half has not been overly effective.

Looking to rebound

For schools without football - Coppin, Loyola, UMBC and the Mount - basketball is the most visible athletic endeavor. But college basketball - with the exception of the Terrapins - has never really ignited the public's ardor here.

"By and large, Baltimore is not a basketball town," said Baker. "People have too many other interests."

Many coaches cite a greater commitment from the administration, students and faculty as necessary to change that. There is an identity problem in many leagues of which local schools are members and attendance suffers as a result.

Why is almost everybody losing? Some say it's cyclical, that the teams will reload and be back. Others cite a talent shortage, coaching turnover or simply bad luck.

"John Wooden said the best coaches are those with the best players," Phelan said. "I don't understand this season. Coppin has never had a year like this. Maybe the stars aligned all wrong and we all came together with bad years.

"I have a feeling everybody is going to jump to and change that."

A down year

Besides Maryland and UMBC, every state Division I men's basketball team is below .500. A look at the teams, with overall record, league record and Rating Percentage Index ranking (out of 324 teams):

........................................................................RPI

School..............W-L...............Conf............rank

Towson............9-17................5-11............234

Navy.................10-18...............5-8..............271

UMES...............11-15...............7-9..............284

Loyola..............4-22.................3-14............318

Morgan.............2-21................2-13.............319

Coppin.............3-23.................1-14............322

Mount...............3-22.................2-16............323

Note: The RPI is derived from three component factors: Div. I winning percentage (25 percent), schedule strength (50 percent), and opponents' schedule strength (25 percent). Games against non-Division I opponents are not used in calculating the RPI.

Around the state

Coppin State

Last winning record: 1998-99 (15-14)

NCAA tournaments since 1990: 1990, lost to Syracuse in first round, 70-48; 1993, lost to Cincinnati in first round, 93-66; 1997, beat South Carolina in first round, 78-65, and lost to Texas in second round, 82-81.

Loyola

Last winning record: 1993-94 (17-13)

NCAA tournaments since 1990: 1994, lost to Arizona in first round, 81-55.

Morgan State

Last winning record: 1978-79 (18-12)

NCAA tournaments since 1990: Never made field.

Mount St. Mary's

Last winning record: 1996-97 (14-13)

NCAA tournaments since 1990: 1995, lost to Kentucky in first round, 113-67; 1999, lost to Michigan State in first round, 76-53.

Navy

Last winning record: 2000-01 (19-12)

NCAA tournaments since 1990: 1994, lost to Missouri in first round, 76-53; 1997, lost to Utah in first round, 75-61; 1998, lost to North Carolina in first round, 88-52.

Towson

Last winning record: 1995-96 (16-12)

NCAA tournaments since 1990: 1990, lost to Oklahoma in first round, 77-68; 1991, lost to Ohio State in first round, 97-86.

UMBC

Last winning record: 2000-01 (18-11)

NCAA tournaments since 1990: Never made field.

UMES

Last winning record: 1993-94 (16-12)

NCAA tournaments since 1990: Never made field.

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