Having a ball

The Baltimore Sun

With March Madness ready for its tip-off tonight, Baltimore is in the enviable position of having more Cinderellas than Disney World. None may be favored to win NCAA Division I men's basketball's Big Dance, but what an extraordinary circumstance for any of them to be there at all.

Surely the most unlikely success story is that of the Coppin State University Eagles, who lost 20 games this season. No team with so many losses had ever qualified for the tournament, but the Eagles' thrilling 62-60 upset over Morgan State to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament on Saturday put them in precisely that position.

What a comeback from their 11-game losing streak this season! It would have been far easier for the team from Northwest Baltimore to call it quits. But veteran coach Fang Mitchell has put his Coppin teams in position to win before - most notably in 1997, when the Eagles surprised the University of South Carolina, a No. 2 seed, in the tournament's first round.

Coppin would be hands-down Maryland's sentimental favorite in this evening's game except - well, they just happen to be matched against another local school, Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg. The Mountaineers earned their spot in the tournament's play-in game by besting Sacred Heart to win the Northeast Conference last week. It's their first appearance in the tourney since 1999.

And no list of Cinderellas would be complete without mentioning the University of Maryland, Baltimore County team that's headed to the Division I tournament for the first time.

Local fans need to enjoy the unusual circumstance while they can. The winner of the Coppin-Mount game is destined to face the tournament favorite, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels (in Raleigh, of all places), while UMBC is slated to face mighty Georgetown University, a No. 2 seed.

Still, it's a thrill to see so many underdogs get their chance to shine. Even in Baltimore, a town that's produced its share of basketball stars, this will be a year to remember.

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