MEAC's power lines are reinstalled here

College basketball: By returning to their `roots,' Coppin State's men are rolling again, but they have company now in Morgan State.

College Basketball

February 19, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

In the 1990s, the route to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference men's basketball championship almost always traveled through Baltimore.

Along West North Avenue. Directly to Coppin State College.

Six miles to the northeast, Morgan State usually didn't offer much resistance to MEAC opponents.

Coppin State had supplanted North Carolina A&T as the dominant MEAC force, winning outright or sharing nine regular-season titles and capturing the league's postseason tournament three times.

But the power began to shift southward. Hampton and South Carolina State have combined to win the past five tournament titles, while Coppin experienced an uncommon slippage.

Now, after a renewed recruiting push in coach Fang Mitchell's home area of metropolitan Philadelphia, the Eagles are battling South Carolina State for the No. 1 tournament seed with four games remaining. The Eagles are 11-3 in the MEAC and 13-12 overall.

And while the road to the MEAC title must again wind through Baltimore, this time it may have to take a detour to, yes, Morgan State.

Morgan, mostly downtrodden since the halcyon days of Marvin "The Human Eraser" Webster and Eric "The Pencil" Evans in the 1970s, reached as high as third in the 11-team standings until a recent slump.

With no overpowering team in the league, the undersized Bears (9-12 overall, 8-6 MEAC), who often play taller than they are, must be considered in the mix to finally reach the NCAA Division I tournament.

"There is a possibility seven teams, maybe eight, could win," said Morgan's third-year coach, Butch Beard, who coached Howard to the MEAC title in 1991-92. "I think we're one of the eight. Everything has to roll just right and it takes a little luck, but we have a chance."

Coppin, of course, is a major threat, just two years after its slide reached a peak when the Eagles went 3-15 in the league, their only losing regular-season record under Mitchell.

A combination of circumstances contributed to that fall. The coach underwent two personal tragedies in little more than a year, losing his wife and brother, and recruiting for a period was entrusted to his assistants, who did not bring in the type of players who were comfortable in the system.

"That was a rough year," said Mitchell, whose record in the '90s was 202-98 overall and an astonishing 145-21 in the MEAC. "We had a lot of guys who didn't understand what was going on. Then, I started going out and seeing exactly what we were recruiting. We had gotten away from Philly, so we went back to our roots.

"I give a lot of credit to Stephen Stewart [an ex-Eagles great who later served as an assistant coach]. He helped get a lot of guys out of the Sonny Hill League, where they played similar to how we do."

The first such recruiting class brought some order back last winter as Coppin tied for fourth in the regular season and was ousted from the MEAC tournament in the quarterfinals on a last-second shot.

Now, with seven Philadelphia natives on the roster, including three starters and gifted freshman Kelvin Green, the Eagles are back.

"All his previous success came out of Philly. For him [Mitchell] not to come back there would not have been right. I'm glad he did," said Coppin point guard Raheem Scott, a sophomore from Philadelphia who was not dismayed by the team's brief dip.

"He had a little downfall, but that didn't bother me. Every good program goes through that."

With the Eagles and Bears both playing well, MEAC teams like Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M no longer get a breather during that three-day stretch in Baltimore.

"We're partners and it's become a lot harder for everybody else," Mitchell said. "It's not like everybody has to prepare for one game now; they have to be ready for two. Both of us have become tough games for opponents both here and on the road."

Morgan has received strong senior leadership from Aaron Andrews, Reggie Winkfield and Cedric Barrow, and has made an attitude adjustment, even conforming to Beard's program that includes 6 a.m. workouts because of gym availability and the solitude involved.

"Kids are not very good about wanting to be there that early," said Beard. "But this group has bought into it."

"Coach brought in guys who wanted to win," added Andrews. "We're not big enough to beat up on people, so we just run and run. And he made us be accountable. It's more of a pride thing."

Andrews said his parents attended Morgan with Webster, whose jersey No. 40 will be the first retired at the school March 1. Andrews will be the last player to wear it. "We're just trying to get back to that status," said Andrews, a previous walk-on who earned a scholarship as a senior.

One of the highlights of Morgan's season came Feb. 2 at home when the Bears blew a big lead against a physically strong Hampton team, then came back to win by one on a miracle shot by newcomer Chris Grant.

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