Coppin: from 0-12 to chance at dance

February 25, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Which of Maryland's Division I men's basketball teams has the best chance of playing in the NCAA tournament next month?

The one that began this season with 12 straight losses.

No, not the Maryland Terrapins. After a 10-2 start, Gary Williams' team has lost six of its past eight games and, barring an abrupt turnaround, almost surely is headed to the National Invitation Tournament for a second straight season.

And no, not the Towson Tigers or Loyola Greyhounds, both of whom are vastly improved under second-year coaches Pat Kennedy and Jimmy Patsos. Although each is around .500 -- a huge accomplishment given that they were a combined 20-94 over the prior two seasons -- they're going to have a hard time winning their conference tournaments.

In coming years, perhaps, but not quite yet.

The Coppin State Eagles, on the other hand, have a real shot at advancing out of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament next month in Raleigh, N.C.

"I honestly thought we had a chance when we were 0-12, and I think we have an even better chance now," said longtime Coppin coach Fang Mitchell, whose team will likely earn the No. 2 seed in the MEAC tournament.

Playing in one of the nation's lowest-rated leagues always gives Coppin a better shot than the state's other teams, but the Eagles prepare the hard way, by enduring a brutal nonconference schedule of "guarantee games" -- road games against big-time teams that pay visitors handsomely to serve as foils.

The Eagles played 14 straight road games to start this season. They lost to Clemson, Xavier, UCLA, Oklahoma, Illinois, Pittsburgh, Michigan and Michigan State, among others.

It sounds suicidal, but Mitchell, who is also Coppin's athletic director, raised enough money to balance his budget, and his young players (11 of 14 are freshmen or sophomores) developed a harder edge that has served them well in conference play. They have won 11 of 15 games in the MEAC, with three remaining in the regular season.

"I've got the nicest kids in the world. They're polite, they're friendly. They didn't know anything about adversity. So I had to show them," said Mitchell, whose 20-year run at the North Avenue school includes 330 wins and three NCAA appearances.

The MEAC tournament is notoriously unpredictable, but to win it and earn the conference's automatic NCAA bid, the Eagles likely will have to beat Delaware State, the top seed and defending champion. Delaware State lost by only 11 points to Duke in the 2005 NCAA tournament, and played Maryland tough for 40 minutes in December.

But Coppin lost by just four at Delaware State in early January, so Mitchell is hopeful.

"It all depends on how we're playing as we go into the tournament," he said. "We're so young. We need leadership. How well we develop that characteristic in the next few weeks will determine how far we go."

Coppin lost in the tournament semifinals a year ago, and four players left the program during the offseason after clashing with Mitchell. Some parents were angry, but Mitchell was unapologetic.

"They needed attitude adjustments, but they refused. So they had to go," he said.

He remains what he calls "old school all the way" when dealing with players, but admits he has felt compelled to soften his style; instead of standing and berating guys during games, he sits quietly on the bench.

Of course, it's easier for him now because he likes his new blend of players more than last season's. The Eagles are small but dogged. The top scorers are 6-2 guard Tywain McKee and 6-foot-4 forward Darryl Proctor.

"I love coaching this group," Mitchell said. "They're really good kids. When we were on the road all that time, they just hit the books. We ended up with seven guys having grade-point averages of 3.0 or better for the first semester."

If they don't make the NCAA tournament this season, the whole bunch is coming back.

"They're already bugging me to make the December schedule even tougher next year. They really want to play these big schools and maybe beat one," said Mitchell, who has already booked games with Connecticut and Ohio State for December 2006.

Coppin has hit the road hard for so long that Mitchell knows Division I as well as any coach; not surprisingly, the board of the ESPN/USA Today weekly coaches poll gave him a vote.

"They said, `You already play everyone. You should do this,'" he said with his trademark cackle.

His travels have made the Eagles well-known, but they haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 1997.

"It's hard to get there when you have to win your league tournament to do it," Mitchell said. "But we'll take our shot."

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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