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Morgan State is chafing to step onto the basketball court, having reached the NCAA tournament for the first time last year, where the perks piqued the Bears' appetite.

"We had charter flights [to the game], police escorts to practice and workouts in front of the national media," said Ameer Ali, a sophomore forward. "Once you've been, there's no turning back."

But Morgan is really driven by a deeper cause. The Bears, 23-12 last year, have dedicated their season to one of their own, 6-foot-10 Anthony Anderson, who was diagnosed with leukemia last month.

Anderson, a redshirt freshman from St. Charles (Charles County) who was expected to contribute off the bench this season, is undergoing chemotherapy at Johns Hopkins Hospital, coach Todd Bozeman said. His prognosis is not known.

"Anthony is going through a form of treatment right now, but the family wants to keep the particulars private," said Leonard Haynes, a Morgan spokesman.

The Bears, two-time defending Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions, have rallied around Anderson.

"The whole team went to the hospital and stood in his room as the doctor explained how he was going to treat him," Bozeman said. "Everybody loves 'Big Ant.' "

Morgan opens at Albany on Friday night, then plays at UMBC on Sunday. All season, players will wear a patch with Anderson's number (4) on their jerseys, said senior Reggie Holmes, Morgan's star guard, who thought it up.

"Anthony will play with us in our hearts," Holmes said.

Rodney Stokes (Old Mill), a 6-10 junior, had Anderson autograph his game sneakers, right across the toe "where I can think of him if things aren't going our way on the court, and just play harder," he said.

Stokes shouldn't have much cause to look down. Though Morgan returns just two starters - Holmes, the school's career 3-point leader, and 6-8 forward Kevin Thompson (Walbrook) - they are flanked by talented supporting players who could send the Bears back to the NCAA tournament.

Last year, Morgan, a No. 15 seed, was routed by Oklahoma, 82-54, in the first round.

"I'm ready, man," Holmes said. "Ever since we lost that game, I've been waiting to get back in the gym to play."

Holmes (St. Frances) averaged 16.8 points a game, tops on a team that upset Maryland during the regular season and then won its first MEAC tournament in 32 years.

"Reggie is the epitome of a leader," said Bozeman, whose team went 13-3 in the conference last season. "He's mid-mannered off the court but a mean cat on it. That's the way you want it."

Thompson, a 240-pound shot-blocking sophomore, should improve on his numbers (nine points, seven rebounds per game). He scored in double figures 16 times last year.

The other three starting spots are still up for grabs, Bozeman said. Favorites up front include Ali, Stokes and freshman DeWayne Jackson, a 6-8 swingman from Bowie.

John Long, a much-improved 6-5 senior from Hagerstown, has been "the surprise of the preseason," Bozeman said.

Danny Smith (Woodlawn), a transfer from Western Nebraska Community College, could fill the point guard role. Sophomore Sean Thomas, senior Troy Smith and Joe Davis, a transfer from Cleveland State, will also play in the backcourt.

An ambitious nonconference schedule sends Morgan to Arkansas, Louisville, Minnesota and Baylor.

Reaching the NCAA tournament last season changed much at Morgan, said Bozeman, who is 68-41 in four seasons at the school.

"It gave credibility to our program," said Bozeman, a two-time MEAC Coach of the Year who has signed on at Morgan for five more seasons. "You can't pay for that kind of advertising. Now the guys who come to Morgan don't have to explain why they came to Morgan."

And the school on Cold Spring Lane won't be mistaken for some other, Bozeman said.

"Before, if you said 'Morgan State,' people would say, 'Oh, you mean Morehead State.'

"Now they don't do that."

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