The memories of last March still are fresh at Coppin State an Towson State, the end of dream seasons for the Eagles and the Tigers that produced their first invitations to the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament.
At Coppin State, head coach Fang Mitchell is merely retooling for another trip to the NCAA tournament. At Towson State, coach Terry Truax is rebuilding a team that lost most of its offense and nearly all of its experience.
Practice will begin tomorrow for the Eagles and Tigers, as it will for all but one of the area's Division I-A men's basketball teams.
Because of an admitted minor infraction last winter by Maryland coach Gary Williams and a five-day self-imposed penalty announced earlier last week by new athletic director Andy Geiger, the Terrapins will start practicing Saturday.
"We'll be happy to put this behind us," Williams said when the penalty was announced.
Loyola would like to put last season in some dark closet. The Greyhounds, in their first season under Tom Schneider and as a rookie member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, finished 4-24. It tied for the worst record in the school's nine-year history in Division I.
But the return of point guard Tracy Bergan, a midseason academic casualty, and the continued rise of junior Kevin Green should make things a little brighter at Reitz Arena this season. Schneider took the Greyhounds on a 10-game trip to Scandinavia this summer, and Loyola responded with eight victories.
"I certainly think we should be improved," said Schneider, who had some success at both Lehigh and Pennsylvania. "Everyone has a year under their belt in our system. We're not going to turn it around in a year, but I'm confident that we will eventually."
So is Navy coach Pete Herrmann. But with the David Robinson era a distant memory, and last season's 5-23 collapse not totally dismissed, there will be pressure on Herrmann's team to improve. Four starters, including senior Eddie Reddick, return.
"I think we're going to be better because we have six players who started some games last year," said Herrmann. "We're hungry. You always feel you've got to be better and show significant improvement."
Morgan State also doesn't have pleasant memories from las winter. Nat Frazier's tumultuous reign ended with his midseason firing, and interim coach Nat Taylor couldn't turn things around in 8-20 season for the Bears. Now it will be up to Michael Holmes.
Holmes, a 39-year-old assistant from Florida A&M, beat out a list of candidates that included two prominent former National Basketball Association players (Dudley Bradley and Ernie DiGregorio) and one prominent alumnus (former Maryland coach Bob Wade), but now the hard part begins.
Inexperience certainly was one of the reasons for UMBC's disappointing 12-16 record last season, and third-year coach Earl Hawkins hopes the Retrievers learned some valuable lessons from it. This year, they will have to learn something else: how to play without Larry Simmons.
Simmons, the school's all-time scorer, has graduated, but UMBC is not without talent. Senior forward Derrick Reid (J.R.'s cousin) returns, as do sophomores Derell Thompson, Brian Watkins and Emmanuel Fasaye. The front line of Reid (6-7), Fasaye (6-8) and center Jim Frantz (6-10), who missed most of last season with a broken arm, gives Hawkins something to build on.
"We're probably bigger and faster than we have been in the past, but not a lot of experience," said Hawkins, whose team also was beset by injuries last season. "We could probably have a good team, if we don't make too many mistakes. We also have to pick up our defensive effort over last year."
There is little doubt Coppin State will have a good team. The Eagles are preseason favorites to repeat as Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions and NCAA tournament participants. And, as usual, Mitchell will be taking his team to tough places in December to get ready for the march to March Madness.
Consider Coppin State's early-season schedule: visits to Tulsa, New Mexico State, Texas-El Paso, Oklahoma and Clemson. The Eagles might not be able to sneak up on anybody this time, but an experienced team led by seniors Larry Stewart and Reggie Isaac is not going to be intimidated.
"I believe in scheduling some easy games, but we had some people back out of some home games," said Mitchell. "We're almost forced into this situation. It's very rough. We're just going to have to be mentally and physically ready. We have to get focused now."
How good will the Eagles be?
"No question I feel good about the team," said Mitchell, who lost only one starter, Phil Booth, as well as key reserve Derrick Orr. "I don't think last year was a case of sneaking up on people. I think it was beyond that after the Maryland game. Everyone was aware of who were after that time. Everyone knows we were were a good team. It's an obstacle, but that's how success is built."