No party favors

The Baltimore Sun

Try to forget, for a moment, that on one of the most exhilarating days in the history of college basketball in Maryland, the NCAA popped the state's balloons even before CBS' selection show went on the air.

Imagine -- Maryland gets one of the biggest per-capita hauls of automatic bids to the NCAA tournament, steering three little engines that could into the field of 65, and the selection committee points two of them, Coppin State and Mount St. Mary's, toward a collision in Dayton, Ohio, tomorrow that will knock out one of them before the party gets started.

Thanks, fellas. Here, have a little Old Bay in your eye, on us.

But seriously, forget that for now, because the Coppin State players have. So has their coach, Fang Mitchell. They're the ones who were 4-19 at one point this season, the ones who had taken their usual December death march through the home courts of the elites and lost every time, the ones who had already lost to Morgan State twice before the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament last week -- and the ones who put all that aside, rolled through the field in Raleigh, N.C., and showed up in the Dance with an all-time high of 20 losses.

You do that and you don't worry about slights and injustices.

"No, we have 20 losses," Mitchell said yesterday, minutes before the Eagles' name appeared in the bracket on the big screen in the campus cafeteria. "That's the hand we dealt ourselves. We dealt it to ourselves, and we had to handle it. We did, and it was something for them to learn from."

Mitchell said this with his hands in his pockets, nodding his head, between one interview and the next, looking and sounding as if this were nothing new or stressful to him. Of course, it isn't new, although his players said that as of yesterday, he had only mentioned one time that the last of the three times Coppin made the field, in 1997, it pulled off the historic upset of No. 2 seed South Carolina.

It appeared to have rubbed off on his players, packed around tables among well-wishers, who didn't feel bad at all about having to get more of a crash course on their first opponent than 63 other teams do.

What did Tywain McKee, hero of the MEAC tournament and especially of the championship game, know about the Mount? Not that it was located within the state, but that "it's who we have next," he said, unable to stop smiling. "I don't think about things like that. I just think about it being one game at a time."

It paid off throughout the constant losing, the insane road trips, the wretched start to the conference season, even the task of winning four games in four nights to earn this bid.

"It's hard," said McKee, a senior who defines "battle-tested." "But if you fall down, you just have to keep getting back up, no matter what."

Coppin's comeback kids are taking it all in stride, from the nationwide ridicule of being the tournament's first 20-loss team to carrying around the taint of the play-in game.

Nope, we weren't going to let that go yet.

Every stinking year, two of the lower-rated automatic bid entrants are sent to the kids' table and are told only one of them will be allowed to eat with the grown-ups. This year, it's particularly egregious. Somebody could have injected a human element into the proceedings and said, "Wait -- two teams that haven't made it in a long time, in the same state, and we're smashing them up in the play-in?"

It wouldn't have been that hard to slip another No. 15 or 16 seed in there from another of the presumed quick-exit bunch, the ones with the bad RPIs and the annual slate of early paycheck games. In fact, it would have been entertaining, and just, to put a twist on the usual play-in routine -- and put Georgia in there. All it did was bring up the rear of a more-reputable conference than Coppin did.

Even better: Who deserves exemption from the Dayton trip more, two teams that won their way in or two that crept in off the bubble and through the back door when another team messed up the end of its season more than they did?

Does Villanova deserve the straight path to the first round more than the Mount does? What did Kentucky do to skip the Tuesday game that Coppin didn't do, besides being named Kentucky?

But none of that was going to happen, and it never will. So enjoy Coppin, and Mount St. Mary's, while you can. You can be sure they'll enjoy it.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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