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After six years of futility, Coppin State men’s basketball riding early success in non-conference schedule

Four days before the Coppin State men’s basketball team snapped a 73-game losing streak to non-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Division I opponents, Game No. 73 in that skid was a 74-42 shellacking at Virginia Tech on Nov. 8.

And between that showing and a 76-72 win at Loyola-Chicago, the Eagles came to a realization.

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“We could have gone one of two ways,” graduate student guard/forward Andrew Robinson recalled Thursday. “But ever since then, we’ve kind of come together and put some wins together. Sometimes it’s better to lose and know how you can improve.”

While Coppin State’s 4-7 record this winter does not seem especially noteworthy, the four victories are the most against non-conference Division I opponents since the 1993-94 season. The team can tie the program record for wins against non-conference Division I opponents shared by the 1988-89, 1989-90 and 1991-92 squads with a victory at UMBC (4-6) on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at the UMBC Event Center in Catonsville.

“It definitely feels great, especially because we usually didn’t get a win until the conference began,” junior guard Dejuan Clayton said. “So to get four wins already before the conference feels great.”

Coach and former University of Maryland standout Juan Dixon had a front-row seat in 2017-18 and 2018-19 when those teams dropped a combined 30 straight games in the winless streak. But he said the seeds for growth were evident in the preseason.

“We have a really deep team with some size and athleticism and intelligence,” said Dixon, who grew up in Baltimore and starred at Calvert Hall. “Going into the season, we had hopes of winning a lot of basketball games. Our goal was to win 20-plus games. So we’ve got to of course win some more non-conference games, and we’ve got to win a lot of games in the conference.”

Juan Dixon, head men's basketball coach at Coppin State University, at Baltimore Basketball Media Day, held at Coppin State.
Juan Dixon, head men's basketball coach at Coppin State University, at Baltimore Basketball Media Day, held at Coppin State. (Amy Davis)

That victory at Loyola-Chicago was the school’s first against a non-conference Division I opponent since Dec. 11, 2013 when that squad enjoyed a 91-71 romp over UMBC. The highlight of last month’s win was how the Eagles overcame a nine-point deficit to open the second half and defeat a Ramblers team that had advanced to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament two years ago.

“It was our first win out-of-conference in a lot of years,” Clayton said. “It gave us the confidence for the rest of the season. … We feel like we can win every game if we play well.”

Coppin State has flourished on both ends of the court. The additions of a pair of off-guard scorers in redshirt senior Kamar McKnight (the team’s leader at 15.2 points per game) and graduate student Aaron Robinson (fifth at 7.6 points), a versatile swingman in graduate student Andrew Robinson (second at 12.3 points), and an athletic power forward in junior Koby Thomas (fourth at 10.0 points) have helped the offense lead the MEAC in three-point field goals made (8.2) and rank fourth in scoring (69.3).

Robinson admitted that it took some time for the players to adapt to each other, but credited Dixon and the assistant coaches for encouraging them.

“I think our coaching staff has done a great job of instilling confidence in us to shoot the shots that we know we can make and just play fast,” Robinson said. “I think that’s why we’ve been able to score so many points this season. We want to shoot threes, but at the same time, we’re trying to get the best shot we can every time we’re out on the court.”

The Eagles have made perhaps their biggest turnaround on defense. They lead the league in defensive rebounds (29.0) and rank second in three-point field-goal percentage defense (.293) and third in overall field-goal percentage defense (.415).

“That’s a testament to our guys sticking to our principles on the defensive end and playing hard and flying around,” Dixon said. “That’s what you have to do if you want to have success on the defensive end. We’ve been rebounding much better collectively.”

Dixon said the coaches have emphasized funneling opposing dribblers to the baseline and sidelines and influencing them to make rash decisions. McKnight said that philosophy fits the players’ styles.

“It’s really a lot of man-to-man,” he said. “Coach Dixon really likes to keep everything to the sidelines. So we try to trap off of ball screens. He likes us to be physical on the ball and disrupt the other team as much as possible.”

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As morale-boosting as each win has been, the setbacks have also been chances to learn and review. Both Clayton and McKnight pointed to a season-opening 91-84 loss to Rider at the Physical Education Complex in Baltimore on Nov. 5 as a missed opportunity.

“We just felt that was a game where we could have stamped our mark,” McKnight said. “We were up by [seven] at halftime, and we could have put a stamp on that home opener. That’s one game that really stands out because we had it.”

But the sting of the losses has receded, and there’s a refreshing level of confidence among the players. Clayton said he has picked up on a stronger sense of cohesion, too.

“I think there’s a different feel,” he said. “We trust in each other every night. We had it before. It’s just more of everything is coming together. The coaching staff has been here for three years. So everything’s coming together.”

Coppin State has four more non-conference games before diving into the MEAC portion of its schedule. And Dixon said he thinks the team is riding a wave of some much-needed momentum.

“We’re going to give ourselves a chance to win a lot of games because of the pieces we added and how well we’re playing right now,” he said. “Hopefully, it can carry over to having the same success — if not more — in the MEAC.”

But Dixon is quick to interject that the Eagles are far from a finished product.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

COPPIN STATE@UMBC

Sunday, 1:30 p.m.

Stretching their wings

After enduring a 73-game losing skid against non Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Division I opponents, Coppin State has defeated four such opposing teams in its 11 games. The school could tie a program record against UMBC on Sunday. Here is a look at the most successful non-conference seasons for the Eagles.

Season Wins Teams

1988-89 5 Samford, Robert Morris, UMBC, Prairie View A&M, Winthrop

1989-90 5 Creighton, Morehead State, Toledo, Maryland, Cornell

1991-92 5 Winthrop, American, UMBC, Youngstown State (twice)

1990-91 4 UMBC, College of Charleston, Florida International, Toledo

1993-94 4 Pacific, Wichita State, Towson, Loyola-Chicago

2019-20 4 Loyola-Chicago, Cornell, James Madison, East Carolina

1992-93 3 Towson, College of Charleston, Buffalo

1996-97 3 Colgate, Duquesne, Kent State

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