Building on success becomes Coppin goal Nailing a nonconference schedule now an obstacle

March 19, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

In an incredible span of three days last weekend in Pittsburgh, the Coppin State basketball team earned the allegiance of fans and increased respect among its peers. The only thing Coppin State lacks for the 1997-98 basketball season -- games.

"Scheduling is very difficult for us. We just can't get any games -- even against larger schools," said Coppin coach Fang Mitchell, who has been able to schedule only five nonconference games for next season. "Our neighbor at Maryland plays everybody in the area, but they won't play Coppin. We can't get Georgetown."

The only time Maryland scheduled Coppin -- during the 1989-90 season -- the Eagles won, 70-63, in College Park.

"We've been able to play against the Big 12," said Mitchell, whose team faced three Big 12 opponents during the regular season and lost to Texas, 82-81, in the East Regional second round. "But since Texas is in the Big 12, I'm wondering right now if that's going to affect our opportunity to go out and play."

Such is life today for Mitchell, who is looking to build on the events of the past weekend. As the Eagles came within one point of becoming the first 15th seed to advance to the Sweet 16, fans at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena were cheering in unison for a tiny, African-American school from West Baltimore.

"I could not have imagined going in and having that many people rooting for us, from all ethnic groups, from old people to young people, from black people to white people," Mitchell said. "Pittsburgh is a blue-collar town, and they appreciate people who work hard. When they saw us, and how hard we worked, they gravitated toward us."

Coppin's work ethic, however, wasn't always a given. When the year begin, the team was a collection of talented players with egos, players jockeying for position as the main man.

They had intense arguments nearly every day of practice.

Players screamed at each other during games. A week didn't go by when one player didn't take a swing at another. Even during the Thursday practice session at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena -- a ++ practice open to media and the public -- those close enough to courtside could see elbows flying and hear words exchanged.

"There were a lot of personal problems," senior forward Reggie Welch said before the NCAA tournament. "We have some crazy guys on this team. If we get on the court and play together, we have so much talent that it's magical. It's just a matter of us getting together."

A turning point came on Jan. 30, before a game at Howard. Players from both teams were involved in a full-scale brawl in a hallway outside the locker rooms, out of view of spectators. The Coppin players, who didn't much like each other, were forced to defend one another.

"There were guys swinging, and you needed your teammates to be behind your back," Welch said. "And we took care of each other. When we got back to the locker room and saw the support we gave, we said, 'We didn't think we could do that for each other.' "

Welch broke his right hand during the fight and missed seven games. But the Eagles went on to win six of the seven games, wrapping up the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title during that stretch. Before the final game of the season, the team had a meeting just to reinforce the unselfish approach.

"In the meeting, we just said no more personal stuff," guard Antoine Brockington said. "We knew if we were going to win this, we had to come together as a team. And once we came back from 19 down [in the MEAC tournament opening-round win over Maryland-Eastern Shore], we knew."

They knew they could win the MEAC tournament. But no one could have imagined their showing in the NCAA tournament.

Can Coppin do it again? Seniors Welch and Terquin Mott, the two best frontcourt players, are gone. Another frontcourt recruit is needed, and junior center/forward Kareem Lewis has to be more consistent as he steps into a bigger role.

The backcourt seems to be solid, with the return of Brockington and point guard Danny Singletary. They proved they could play with any guards in the country during the NCAA games, although they could be broken up if Singletary leaves to pursue his first love -- baseball. The Kansas City Royals have had conversations with Singletary, an all-MEAC outfielder.

Mitchell is hoping that the team's success will help recruit some athletes who might be intrigued by the little school that bucked the odds and became the biggest story in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

"Where do we go from here?" said Mitchell, repeating a question asked of him. "It all depends on the type of people we can get. I do believe we will attract some basketball players. And I do believe we can keep this going."

Pub Date: 3/19/97

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