Morgan State's ambitious and top-seeded Bears will cast the tallest shadow when the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference men's basketball tournament opens today in Raleigh, N.C. But don't be surprised if an old favorite delivers an encore performance before it's over.
Fang Mitchell's midseason decision to start five seniors rescued Coppin State from a season of embarrassment and triggered its longest winning streak in 10 seasons.
When the seventh-seeded Eagles face 10th-seed Howard at 6:30 p.m. today at the RBC Center, they will try to re-create some of their old-time magic.
Mitchell and Coppin ruled the MEAC in the 1990s, earning three NCAA tournament berths and two in the National Invitation Tournament during a scorching eight-year domination. From 1990 through 1999, the Eagles went 16-7 in the conference tournament.
In the past eight years, however, they've gone 5-8 and reached the championship game only once. They haven't been to the postseason since 1996-97.
This season seemed destined to follow that path. A home loss to Delaware State on Feb. 2 left the Eagles with a 4-19 record and approaching the worst of Mitchell's 22 seasons at Coppin (6-25 in 2001-02).
In the midst of the losses and in an attempt to improve team chemistry, Mitchell turned the lineup over to his five seniors. Rejuvenated or pacified, the Eagles (12-20, 7-9 MEAC) won eight straight games before a four-point loss at Morgan State last week.
"Coaching is always a battle in trying to get team unity where everybody is on the same page," Mitchell said. "Then you find out there's cliques. Basically, since I understood that, I went with the most influential group, and it turned out to be pretty good for us. It reduced a lot of the tension we had."
Seniors Tywain McKee and Antwan Harrison filled a leadership breach and carried the scoring load. The other seniors contributed, too. Julian Conyers' shots started to fall, Mike Miller played defensive stopper and Robert Pressey pounded the boards.
Mitchell also delivered a message to his class of four freshmen: "The statement was made the seniors will start, and if you want to get on the floor, you have to earn your way," he said.
Since then, the team has played with more energy and unity.
"We're playing better defense, making the extra pass," Mitchell said. "Early in the year, we just didn't do that. We were more self-centered. You can't play that way and win."
A win tonight would send Coppin into a 9:30 p.m. quarterfinal tomorrow against No. 2 Hampton. The Eagles wouldn't get another shot at cross-town rival Morgan until the championship game.
Mitchell calls the Bears a "prohibitive favorite" to get the MEAC's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The biggest issue the Bears (20-9, 14-2) face is a bruised foot suffered by leading scorer Jamar Smith (17.6 points per game) late in February. He has missed the past two games, but X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging were negative, and coach Todd Bozeman expects Smith to play in Raleigh.
"Our confidence level is high, but we're not arrogant," said Morgan point guard Jerrell Green (Southern). "We feel we can play with anybody. We honestly feel we're the best team in the conference."
The Bears allowed a league-low 57.2 points in conference games, lead the league in rebounding margin (4.9) and rank second in field-goal percentage defense (.408).
Much of that is attributable to Boubacar Coly, who leads the MEAC in rebounding and blocked shots.
"Boubacar has been dominating the paint all season," Green said. "If a guard gets beat, we always know we've still got a chance [to get a stop]."
Maryland's third MEAC team, 11th-seeded UMES (4-27, 2-14), plays sixth-seeded Florida A&M; today at 3 p.m. UMES features the MEAC's leading scorer in junior guard Ed Tyson (Walbrook), who averages 19.9 points, but the Hawks have allowed 75.0 points a game, the second-highest average in the league.
MEAC awards -- The Morgan State men collected three major awards at the MEAC banquet last night in Raleigh. Bozeman was named Coach of the Year, Smith the Offensive Player of the Year and Coly the Defensive Player of the Year. Smith and Coly were named first-team All-MEAC, as was Coppin's McKee. On the women's side, Coppin's Shalamar Oakley was named Player of the Year and backcourt mate Rashida Suber earned first-team honors. Morgan's 5-foot-5 guard, Corin Adams, was selected Defensive Player of the Year and named to the first team, and UMES' Casey Morton was chosen Rookie of the Year.
AT A GLANCE
Site -- RBC Center, Raleigh, N.C.
When -- Today through Saturday
Web site -- meachoops.com
TV -- Championship game (Saturday, 8 p.m.) on ESPN Classic
Favorite -- Morgan State (20-10, 15-2)
State entries -- No. 1 seed Morgan State; No. 7 seed Coppin State (12-20, 7-9); No. 11 seed UMES (4-27, 2-14)
Outlook -- The conference has been chasing Morgan State all season and the Bears slipped up only twice. They lost by two at Norfolk State and by one in overtime at Florida A&M.; The only question they have coming into the tournament is the health of Jamar Smith, who has a foot injury. Morgan has the best big man in Boubacar Coly, the best point guard in Jerrell Green and a player who can do it all in Marquise Kately. Coppin finished strong, but after a first-round game against Howard, the Eagles would get No. 2 seed Hampton. UMES struggled all season and will play No. 6 Florida A&M; tomorrow in the first round.