Coppin knows 16-0 year is no good without crown

March 05, 1993|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Staff Writer

Coppin State has heard a lot of trash talking from its opponents this season.

When a team is barreling through its conference season with barely a test, that kind of thing happens. Rivals will try almost anything to intimidate the invincible one.

"I wouldn't say teams have played dirty against us," said Eagles point guard Sidney Goodman. "But they sure have talked a lot.

"When it happens, we take it personally, right to heart. We really want to knock them out."

So, far the Eagles have KO'd them all, compiling a 16-0 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference record entering the postseason tournament today at The Scope in Norfolk, Va. The only other MEAC team to go undefeated during the regular season, North Carolina A&T in 1987-88, also won the league tourney.

It has been a glorious ride for a Coppin team that wasn't seen as a powerhouse before the season began. Not only did it lack any seniors or superstars, but it was coming off a stormy year in which many of its important players were disciplined.

But the ride will not end in joy unless the Eagles also win the tournament and the NCAA bid that goes with it.

"We've worked very hard for this all season," said Goodman. "But going 16-0 wasn't our final goal. Winning the MEAC is."

With four key first-year players -- Stephen Stewart, Michael Thomas, Kyle Locke and Melvin Roberts -- the Eagles surprised even coach Fang Mitchell.

"I have to be a little shocked at what they've done," said Mitchell. "At the start of the year we had 15 guys who had eight years of college experience. To expect them to mature at this level and in this little bit of time has been truly a blessing."

Coppin's assets begin with depth. Mitchell has the luxury of starting 10 different players on a practically interchangeable roster.

In fact, the Eagles' most talented player, All-MEAC second-team choice Tariq Saunders, now comes off the bench. That will not change in the tournament because the current starting five -- Goodman, Roberts, Stewart, Thomas and Locke -- has a 9-0 record.

"That's what makes us a good team," said Goodman. "There are a lot of go-to people."

Second in the Coppin portfolio is defense. The Eagles play it with a passion few teams display. Only twice all season did they yield 70 or more points to an MEAC opponent.

"We have created a lot of opportunities with our defense," said Mitchell.

The turning point of Coppin's season came early -- on a December visit to Towson State. The Eagles were 0-3 after losses at Kansas State and James Madison and at home to UMBC.

"We knew we weren't supposed to be 0-3," said Mitchell. "But we had to prove it. In the first half at Towson, they reverted to what they had been doing in the first three games.

"But in the second half they came out with a whatever-it-takes attitude. After they reacted that way, I knew this team was special."

Coppin went on to beat the Tigers, 79-74, at the Towson Center by out-willing them. Three more non-conference defeats on the road followed in December, but in 1993, the Eagles lost only one game.

Another factor was the addition of Nate Blackwell as an assistant coach. A former guard for a Temple team that reached No. 1, Blackwell was respected from the start.

"When Nate says, 'This is what we have to do,' they listen," said Mitchell. "He's never missed a tournament and nothing but respect can go to an individual like that."

"Coach Blackwell has done a lot for us, teaching us patience, discipline and thinking before you do things," said Goodman. "We know he was a superstar so whatever he says has to be true."

If Coppin wins its first-round game, the next obstacle will be Morgan State. The Eagles won their two matchups by 26 and 14 points.

Morgan coach Michael Holmes knows his team must beat a Florida A&M team with a strong front line featuring DeLon Turner before thinking about Coppin.

"We have to play somebody and if it turns up to be Coppin, so be it," said Holmes. "Clearly, they're the team to beat, but right now we're only looking at Florida A&M.

"The thing about tournament play is that after it's over, only the champion is remembered out of more than 300 Division I teams."

Mitchell says Coppin will be ready. "I don't think they can come at us any harder than they did in the second half of the season," he said. "The focus is on us. But we plan on winning the tournament."

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