Poor state of basketball affairs

Colleges: Aside from the Terps, only UMBC has a legitimate NCAA chance among state Division I men's teams. The reasons are many.

College Basketball

February 23, 2002|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

Somehow, the 1990s boom for area men's Division I college basketball teams suddenly became a bust.

With conference championship tournaments on the horizon, only UMBC appears to have a legitimate chance to advance to the NCAA lineup for reasons as diverse as the schools involved.

The locals are definitely out of the express lane.

Excluding Maryland - which is in a league of its own - and 17-8 UMBC - a solid contender for the Northeast Conference title - the combined record of the state's other seven Division I teams is 42-138.

UMES (11-15) is the only other school that is on track to approach its final record of last season (12-16).

Moreover, four of the state's teams - Morgan State, Loyola College, Coppin State and Mount St. Mary's - have been consistently ranked in the bottom 10 of the Rating Percentage Index in recent weeks (the RPI is derived from three component factors and is used by the NCAA as a tool for selection of at-large teams and seeding for the NCAA basketball tournament). Those ratings sharply contrast with the 11 NCAA Division I tournament appearances the schools made in the '90s, three each by Coppin and Navy, two by Towson and Mount St. Mary's and one by Loyola.

The Eagles even won a game as a No. 15 seed in 1997, Coppin shocking Top 20 South Carolina in the first round and nearly making the Sweet 16 before losing a one-point game to Texas.

Why are so many teams struggling so badly at the same time?

`Bad mix' at Coppin

The biggest tumble has come at Coppin, the little school that could when athletic director/coach Fang Mitchell was mining the Philadelphia-New Jersey area for hard-to-find nuggets.

Now, the team is mired on the unfamiliar bottom of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference standings, rated No. 322 in the RPI, and with no relief in sight.

Longtime local college personality Paul Baker, one-time coach at the University of Baltimore and Wheeling College, said he believes Mitchell is a victim of his own success. Michell has had difficulty recruiting players who fit into his philosophy.

"It's very hard to master a high level over a period of time," Baker said. "You can't have champagne on a beer budget. Fang is a master disciplinarian and shrewd judge of talent who's swimming upstream against the tide of restlessness of young people."

It has been a tragic year for Mitchell, whose wife, Yvonne, died suddenly last month.

On the court, the Eagles haven't found a replacement for All-MEAC forward Joe Brown, a proven scorer, and are straining for offensive consistency with senior point guard Rasheem Sims, the team's leader, on the shelf with a broken foot since December.

And Sims was the only remaining link to Mitchell's Philadelphia ties, which made his program the prototype for the MEAC for almost a decade.

"We're working on that problem," said Mitchell, who began to entrust recruiting to his assistants. "Philadelphia has been down the last couple of years and we went in another direction. We should have stayed with it.

"Now, we've just got a bad mix. And, when you lose your general [Sims], and go down to your third point guard, you're in trouble."

Mitchell, an old-school coach, has an even-handed approach toward discipline: Break the rules and you're suspended, no matter what your status is on the team.

"Our school is the same, the arena is the same, the coaches are the same," he said. "The only difference is the players. They lack a hungriness and love for the game. We have spoiled young people who've been catered to. We have to go out and recruit people who want to fight you right down to the wire.

"The big boys always get the best [players], but we were always in the cracks. Now, you've got to worry about not only talent, but attitude, too. Responsibility is lacking."

Towson pipeline clogged

New coaches, new systems and new approaches have forced adjustments at both Towson and Morgan State and, to a lesser degree, Loyola.

Towson has also been confronted with a new and tougher league, the Colonial Athletic Association, but is showing recent improvement under first-year leader Michael Hunt.

"We stepped up a level and got a totally new system," said Hunt, who wants to upgrade recruiting in local high schools, the secret to the program's success when he was an assistant under Terry Truax.

"I think the academic standards raised by the NCAA hurt some of the local kids, so we looked elsewhere."

During the Truax era, assistant Jim Meil had a pipeline and strong rapport with local coaches and families, helping to bring the likes of Devin Boyd (Walbrook), Kennell Jones (Poly), Kurk Lee (Dunbar), Scooter Alexander (Dunbar) and Kelly Williamson (Calvert Hall) to the program.

"There has to be a coordinated effort with the administration, athletic department, everybody, to try to do everything you can to get these local prospects," said Truax, who led the Tigers to two NCAA tournaments.

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