Only two of Baltimore's Division I basketball teams, the UMBC men and the Loyola women, came out of December with winning records. That is mainly because most of the schools play games against bigger schools.
The meaty portion of conference schedules began last weekend and continues tonight, with four men's games and two women's games in the area. Here's a look at the teams with the greatest promise, especially four that have the best chances to make the NCAA tournament.
UMBC men (6-5, 3-2 Northeast Conference): Most of all, coach Tom Sullivan fears hubris among his players, an otherwise desirable mix of young and veteran talent.
"If you go in thinking you're better than the other team, you're going to be in trouble," Sullivan said of his team's 70-68 loss to Bucknell on Dec. 30, which came after a strong effort at Virginia. "We're a team that can be good, but one that needs to maintain focus."
On Saturday, UMBC lost to conference foe St. Francis, N.Y., in overtime, 95-91, for its fifth defeat in six games.
Newcomers Peter Mulligan and Ronald Yates attracted a lot of the attention early, but moved into the background as standbys Kennedy Okafor, Terence Ward and Brad Martin have begun to assert themselves. The Retrievers still seem to be the class of the NEC.
They play host to Long Island at 7:30 tonight.
Loyola women (9-4, 3-1 Metro Atlantic): Coach Cindy Anderson said last season's young team gained from playing early games against Virginia, Maryland and Seton Hall. It finally showed when the team reached the MAAC tournament semis as a No. 6 seed.
The older Loyola has losses - Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth and Fairfield - against teams ranked No. 63 (VCU) to No. 26 (Virginia) in Ratings Percentage Index. After yesterday's 80-61 win over Iona, the team has won eight of its past nine games going back to Dec. 2, including a win over the Big East's Seton Hall.
"It's been a challenging schedule. Based on our youth and a similar schedule, it made us better come tournament time [last season]," Anderson said. "With a more mature squad, that type of schedule is paying off earlier rather than later."
Anderson has been pleased with her team's balance. She'll play nine or 10 players for major minutes, helping the defensive effort. As expected, Erica Rath has been providing significant scoring punch, along with Shontrese Smith.
The big challenge is beating Fairfield, who defeated the traveling Greyhounds, 72-56, on Dec. 10. "Hopefully, it will be a different type of game on Jan. 21," Anderson said.
Coppin State men (4-8, 2-2 Mid-Eastern Athletic): Coach Fang Mitchell makes a succinct case for his Eagles' postseason chances despite a 4-8 record. "I know I have until the second week in March; that's a long time," he said. "If I came to the table empty-handed, I would tell you. I'm not empty-handed."
But Mitchell's team is injured. Coppin began 4-2, but went on the road for games at Oklahoma, California, Ohio State and Colorado with six players on the medical report. The team's best scoring threat, Joe Brown, is out with a sore right hamstring until next week, which is when forward DeMond Huff returns from a knee injury.
The race for the MEAC men's title will be the most hotly contested, with at least five teams in serious contention. Coppin plays one of them, Hampton, tonight.
Towson men (7-8, 3-3 America East): If only his team would continue to rebound, defend and coddle the basketball, coach Mike Jaskulski would be a happy man. Instead, Towson does those things in fits and starts, so it settles for an even record.
"When we lost, teams were scoring 80 points, shooting over 50 percent and we were turning the ball over 20 times a game," Jaskulski said, comparing it to the 37 percent shooting and 60s figures his team allowed in its wins. "It's a dramatic swing."
Newcomers Sam Sutton and Tamir Goodman have fit seamlessly in Towson's starting rotation. Brian Allen has emerged in his second year, teaming with Goodman to give Towson a strong backcourt. Brian Barber and Shaun Holtz continue as unrelenting threats on offense.
The team has beaten Maine, one of the league favorites, and would go higher on this list but for its inability to defeat Drexel or Hofstra during a recent road swing.
Every other team needs to wake up early in the morning if it hopes to get an NCAA bid. The Coppin women (3-9) took beatings against bigger programs, but they gain from the return of guard Javonti Jones (academically ineligible) and are possibly a dark horse in the MEAC. They play host to Hampton at 5:30 p.m. today.
The Morgan State men (2-8) have played a Fang-esque schedule and will simply need to locate consistency to be a factor in the same conference. Norfolk State enters tonight for a 7:30 game.
The Loyola men (3-9), who play host to Iona at 7:30 tonight, haven't played badly, but new coach Scott Hicks is trying to succeed without dependable reserves and would-be starter Donovan Thomas.
It's a push between the women of UMBC (4-8) and Morgan State (3-7). The Retrievers play in a slightly stronger league, but the lack of a dominant team gives hope to all in the NEC. Morgan State, which takes on Norfolk State in a home game at 5:30 p.m. today, may finish high - despite five losses to teams ranked below the top 200 in RPI - but Howard seems to be a much clearer favorite in the MEAC.
Finally, an 0-12 record obscures the strength demonstrated by the Towson women to force Loyola into overtime, but clearly shows the inability to win a game, a task that seems to get more daunting with time.
"When you win and get on a roll, it's easy," Towson coach Ellen Fitzkee said. "But when you lose a lot of close games, the first win becomes harder to get, because the kids begin to put pressure on themselves."