The first round of the National Invitation Tournament is a chance for guards from both Coppin State and Southwest Missouri to atone for late-season shooting sins.
When Coppin's Eagles travel to Springfield, Mo., to play the Bears tomorrow (8:05 p.m.), they will face a team similarly disappointed about not returning to the NCAAs.
Coppin State failed to defend its Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title in part because of Reggie Isaac's 5-for-19 misfiring in a loss to Florida A&M in the MEAC semifinals. When Southwest Missouri, in search of its fifth straight trip to the NCAAs, lost to Creighton in the Missouri Valley final, senior guards Darryl Reid and Arnold Bernard were a combined 6-for-25 from the field and teamed for 12 turnovers.
While Isaac is one of four Coppin State starters from the Philadelphia area, the Southwest Missouri backcourt is from the Bronx. Reid, 6 feet 2, leads the Bears (21-11) in scoring for the second straight year with a 16.3 average, and the 5-5 Bernard averages 12.3 points and 7.6 assists.
Former teammates at San Jacinto Junior College in Pasadena, Texas, Reid and Bernard struggled along with their teammates in December, with rare losses at home to Colorado and North Carolina A&T.
That was before Ryan Thornton, a 6-6 transfer from Kansas State, became eligible. He had 33 points and eight rebounds in his first game back. The beefy senior from Chicago averages 14.3 points and a team-high 6.5 rebounds, and he'll try to neutralize Coppin State leader Larry Stewart.
Stewart, the two-time Player of the Year in the MEAC, is averaging 24.0 points on 63.8 percent shooting and 13.6 rebounds. He has been one of the region's most consistent players the last two seasons, but even Stewart struggled in the upset loss to Florida A&M, getting 19 points and 10 rebounds, but committing six turnovers.
"This is new life for every one of us, a chance to redeem ourselves," Stewart said, flipping through a Southwest Missouri media guide. "I didn't want the season to end that way."
Opening the NIT on the road is never inviting. But Coppin State did well on the road last year during the regular season, winning at Creighton and Maryland. The Eagles (19-10) had similar opportunities this year, but they lost early at Tulsa by five points, at New Mexico State by 10, at Texas-El Paso by 15 and at Oklahoma by 19. They lost at the buzzer to Clemson in a holiday tournament in Miami, and fell by five at New Orleans.
New Mexico State and New Orleans were at-large selections to the NCAA tournament. Tulsa and Oklahoma are in the NIT.
Stewart hopes that this year's road experiences will help the Eagles at Southwest Missouri. Most of the 8,858 seats at the Hammons Center usually are filled and, the Bears are 114-16 there since Charlie Spoonhour took over as coach in 1983. No wonder the place is called "Spoon's Temple of Doom."
Coppin State dealt with preseason injuries to Stewart, senior center Larry McCollum and junior point guard Larry Yarbray. In February, the major distraction was a tumor on the base of coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell's back. Following surgery, he was absent for several games. The usually non-stop Mitchell didn't get off the bench at the MEAC tournament.
Monday, Mitchell was limping, but without the cane he needed for most of the winter. He is ready for whatever hostile forces come Coppin State's way tomorrow.
"I can scream now, and not be in pain," Mitchell said. "It's been a while since I could say that."
Last year, when it became the first Baltimore area team to reach the NCAA Division I tournament, Coppin State earned more than $151,000 after its loss to Syracuse in the first round. The Eagles' take was determined by the MEAC's profit-sharing plan.
Making it into the NIT is not quite the same money-making proposition. The tournament covers all expenses, and all receipts from the tournament -- tickets, TV and radio rights, merchandising -- are put into a pool that is divided later. No figures are set, but last year a visiting team that lost in the first round of the NIT took home about $15,000. Vanderbilt, the champion, earned approximately $100,000.