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By bringing in Terps' winning culture, Coppin State basketball coaches look to turn programs around

The Coppin State men’s and women’s basketball programs are set to enter new territory with two former Terps stars heading both teams.

Men’s coach Juan Dixon (1998-2002) and women’s coach Laura Harper (2004-2008) each won a national title while at College Park. Dixon won in 2002 under coach Gary Williams, and Harper in 2006 under Brenda Frese. The two went on to play professionally in the NBA and WNBA and are looking to blend their history of winning into Coppin State’s program.

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The two have a great deal of camaraderie because of their college roots.

“We’re very fortunate to both have won a national championship at the University of Maryland, under two Hall of Fame coaches there — Coach Williams, who’s retired, and of course, Coach Frese,” said Dixon, who is in his fourth season with the Eagles. "The same mindset that we had as student-athletes then, is the same mindset that we have now as coaches.

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“We work extremely close together, we get to know each other more and more every day and Coach [Harper] is a lot of fun to work with. I’m looking forward to turning our programs here at Coppin State around, but it’s going to take development on and off of the floor for that to happen.”

Harper starts her first year at the program, moving through the coaching ranks after ending her pro basketball career in 2013. She began as an assistant at Loyola Maryland in the 2013-14 season before heading to High Point (2014-2016), George Washington (2016-2017) and Florida (2017-2019). Before becoming Coppin State’s coach, she served as the coach for the Montverde Academy (Florida) girls basketball team last season.

“Obviously, I think it’s fun to know that you have a brother like Coach [Dixon], that I have that support and someone that knows what it’s like to work hard and knows what it’s like to win,” Harper said. “For me, you have to know what it feels like to win, what it looks like, what it sounds like before you can instill those types of principles in your teams. I’m just extremely blessed and humbled to be around Coach and were excited to turn this thing around.”

Coppin State’s nonconference schedule is set to begin Nov. 25. The men’s team will head to Marshall on the same date for their opener, before playing against Tennessee State the next day and will head to Duke on Nov. 28. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference has released a schedule with each school playing 16 games over the course of nine weeks beginning Jan. 2, 2021, in a divisional format. Coppin will participate in the Northern Division, along with Delaware State, Howard, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Morgan State and Norfolk State.

With the accolades of having a five-year pro career and having coached the game for an even longer period of time, Harper has consistently preached a winning formula to her team. It will take a great deal of turnover, with the women’s team finishing 3-26 (3-13 MEAC) last season.

The Eagles finished with a -21.9 points per game differential, averaging 49.4 and allowing 71.3 a game.

“To win basketball games, you have to win everything that you do in life,” Harper said. "You have to win waking up in the morning, with what you put in your body, how you handle yourself, conducting yourself and that’s the first thing that I’m trying to instill in our team. Excellence is the standard and winning is the standard and you’ve got to believe that you can win before you actually do it.

“I think that right now, we’re celebrating our small victories and we’re just grateful to be able to play. If we can play in practice, if we can play in the games, to me that’s a success and we focus on every single one of those.”

The Eagles men’s team went 11-20 (7-9 MEAC) last season, defeating James Madison and East Carolina on the road. The team has improved each year after going 5-27 (5-11 MEAC) in 2017-18 and 8-25 (7-9 MEAC) in 2018-19.

Dixon has high expectations for his program.

“We have some pieces, we have some athleticism, some toughness some shooting,” he said. “So, we’re looking forward to having a very successful season and the goal is to stay injury-free.”

The team adds several new players with transfers and incoming freshmen.

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Junior forward Domantas Sakickas is a transfer from Frederick Community College, along with junior forward Bryce Hunt from Schoolcraft College (Michigan), redshirt senior guard Anthony Tarke (UTEP) and Chereef Knox (Saint Joseph’s). The team also welcomes freshman guards Dwaine Jones Jr. and Kaelon Harkema, along with redshirt freshmen forward Kenan Sarvan and guard Isaiah Gross.

Redshirt senior guard DeJuan Clayton and senior guard/forward Koby Thomas were named to the preseason All-MEAC first team. Clayton averaged 12.0 points and 3.7 rebounds per game to go with a team-high 108 assists and 50 steals last season. Thomas led the team with 13.3 points per game and averaged 6.8 rebounds per game, ranking sixth in the MEAC.

Clayton has become one of the building blocks for the program, ranking 12th all-time in points (1,280) and seventh in assists (337) and free throws made (343). His maturation as a player and leader has been fundamental to Dixon’s improvements to the team in his three seasons as the head coach.

“I do believe that DeJuan Clayton is underrated,” Dixon said. “I think with the addition of Anthony Tarke, the development of Koby Thomas and you obviously want to see Clayton take off. The last few years, there was a ton of pressure with him to handle the basketball and score the basketball, but now guys are able to get down the floor and make plays. You will see DeJuan Clayton shoot the ball much better.”

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