Coppin's all-for-1 ethic to be tested by Morgan

January 28, 1993|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Staff Writer

For Coppin State basketball coach Fang Mitchell, the initial signs that this year's team was going to be special occurred in December after road games at Boston College and Cal-Santa Barbara.

"I walked in and these guys were down," Mitchell said of the two losses that followed a two-game Eagles winning streak. "We had a few guys crying in the locker room. Here was a group of guys that wanted -- and expected -- to win."

Their sentiments were not shared by many others. Returning just one player with more than one year's experience on a team that finished tied for fourth in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference last season, Coppin was picked to finish seventh in the league in a vote of coaches and sports information directors.

So it's a surprise to see Coppin State in first place (8-7, 5-0) going into tonight's showdown against second-place Morgan State (4-9, 4-1) before an expected overflow crowd at Coppin Center.

"I can understand us being picked seventh with us losing two starters and having a lot of new people," said Mitchell, who has four juniors, six sophomores and four freshmen. "But I don't look at myself as a seventh-place coach."

And that's because he never has been. Since Mitchell arrived at Coppin State for the 1986-87 season, the Eagles have never had a losing conference season.

"They don't have any stars -- [Mitchell] plays a lot of people and utilizes the team concept," said coach Cy Alexander, whose South Carolina State team lost to Coppin, 86-58, at home Jan. 7. "When they had [Larry] Stewart and [Reggie] Isaac, they were the go-to guys, and the other guys just blended in. You have a Tariq Saunders and he's not a super, super star. All of those guys blend in together and, with 10 guys contributing, that makes them very dangerous."

Saunders, a 6-foot-6, 217-pound junior forward, is the team's leading scorer (14.2) and rebounder (5.8), yet he's no longer a starter. In fact, three of Coppin State's top four scorers are seated when the game begins.

"Minutes aren't a problem -- if you're playing well, you'll get the minutes you deserve," said sophomore forward Stephen Stewart Larry's younger brother -- who is the team's third-leading scorer despite not starting. "You don't worry about playing time if you're concerned about winning."

That's an attitude Mitchell said didn't exist last season when the Eagles finished 15-13.

"Accountability was something that was left out [last year]," Mitchell said. "On this team it's now 'our' problem, rather than pointing the finger at somebody else. The family atmosphere of this team just makes it a joy coaching."

Mitchell's joy apparently has led to a little bit of a looser rein. Still known as a team that deploys an aggressive, full-court pressure defense, certain Coppin players on offense this year are given the green light to launch three-pointers. Through 15 games the Eagles have taken 296 three-pointers and hit 100 -- well ahead of last season's 120-for-361 production in 28 games.

"If we would have tried shooting threes like that. . . . let's just say it would have never happened with us," said Larry Stewart, now with the Washington Bullets, after watching the Eagles throw up threes (hitting nine) in Monday's 73-61 win over Bethune-Cookman. "But they have four, five or six guys who can shoot the three."

The three-point shooting helps because Coppin is not a big team. Michael Thomas, a 6-8 sophomore center, is Coppin's main inside scoring threat. Saunders has the ability to score inside, but 10 of his 11 shots Monday were three-pointers.

"With this team, if you're open you can shoot it," Mitchell said.

Also playing defense "as well as we have since the Stewart years," it's no mystery why the Eagles have gotten a jump on the MEAC.

"There's no individualism. If we need a point, there's no one person we have to go to," said sophomore guard Sidney Goodman. "We never expected to come in and do as well as we have. But we're picking up momentum and we can get better."

And to hear his players express a desire to be better -- even after a successful start -- makes Mitchell happy.

"We have good chemistry and everybody likes each other, which is a key to being successful," Mitchell said. "I have a good feeling about this group."

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