Coppin State men's basketball ready to start running under new coach

With Coppin State's men's basketball team set to open its first official practice Monday afternoon under new coach Michael Grant, some of the Eagles had trouble getting a full night of sleep Sunday.

"I went to sleep around 4 and woke up around 10. So I only had six hours. I was geared up and ready to go," said senior guard Taariq Cephas.

Senior forward Dallas Gary had the a similar experience. "I was pretty anxious for the first day just because it's going to be fun and it's going to be a new system," he said. "I'm anxious to get this going."

The program has begun a new era under Grant after Fang Mitchell's 28-year run as Coppin State's coach ended when his contract wasn't renewed after last season.

The 5-foot-10, 165-pound Cephas admitted that it was strange to practice for the first time without Mitchell on the floor.

"It kind of feels different," Cephas said. "I look around and I'm used to hearing his raspy voice. I kind of miss him, but you've just got to move forward."

In his introductory news conference, Grant emphasized that he is not Mitchell, and that distinction is no more apparent than in the coaches' style of play.

While Mitchell favored half-court sets that emphasized patience and high-percentage shots, Grant has installed an up-tempo philosophy that encourages fast breaks and intense pressure defense. He likened it to the "40 Minutes of Hell" style popularized by former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson.

Grant — who compiled a six-year record of 100-73 at Division II Stillman College, including an 18-10 mark last season — said the aim is to revive enthusiasm among Coppin fans base.

"We just want to make it exciting, and people are going to ooh and aah when we're coming down," he said. "If a guy backs off, we're going to shoot it in his face. If he gets up, we're going past him. We just want to make it exciting and fun for the crowd. This should be entertainment. When people come to a game, it should be entertaining."

To prepare players for the physical conditioning required by his system, Grant and his coaching staff set up an arduous offseason training routine in which the Eagles ran sprints with little resting time between sets.

Gary said the training was difficult, but worth the effort.

"I think this style suits our personnel better," said the 6-5, 210-pound Gary, who averaged 11.0 points and 6.2 rebounds in his last five starts last season. "We don't have a lot of size, but most of our scorers and playmakers are on the perimeter."

Coppin State graduated its top two scorers in forward Michael Murray (14.6 points per game) and guard Andre Armstrong (11.8), and Murray was also the team's leading rebounder (6.9).

But the Eagles return their next five top scorers from last year — a group led by junior guard Sterling Smith (10.9) — and their top assists man in Cephas (4.1). Grant is optimistic that this year's squad can reverse a trend in which the program has had losing records in nine of the last 10 seasons.

"These guys have been around long enough that I know they have to be tired of losing," Grant said. "I know they want to go out as winners. So we've challenged these guys and told them, 'If you want to go out as winners, it's going to start with our seniors. You guys have to believe that you can win, you have to believe that every opportunity we play in this gym, you have a chance to win.' We're not letting anybody get out of here [easy]. If they come in here, they have to work their butts off to come out of here with a win."

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