Earlier this season, the local college basketball scene was, for the first time in a long time, filled with both promise and buzz.
Loyola, led by Maryland transfer Andre Collins, got off to a blistering start. Once-dormant Towson, led by La Salle transfer Gary Neal, was showing signs of life, and the Tigers were drawing crowds twice as big as they had in recent seasons. Coppin State, toughened up by another brutal nonconference schedule, looked as if it might be a serious threat to make it to the NCAA tournament.
Things have cooled a bit down the home stretch - Coppin State has lost three straight, Loyola has been both hot and cold, and Neal has missed the Tigers' past four games with a foot injury - but all three still look like they could make serious runs in their conference tournaments. The dream of making it to the NCAA tournament, for now, lives on.
"Some of the teams won early, and some won late, but the tournaments are a whole new ballgame," said Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell, whose team faces Morgan State tonight in its final regular-season game. "What you did before is just past tense. You have to look at everyone as having a chance to win. Don't write anybody off."
No one knows that better than Mitchell, whose team started the season 0-12 playing a schedule that included Clemson, Xavier, UCLA, Oklahoma, Illinois, Pittsburgh, Michigan and Michigan State.
The Eagles (11-17, 11-6) got hot once league play began, but recent losses to South Carolina State, Howard and UMES (the first time Coppin State has lost three straight league games since 2002-03) have slowed their momentum.
They're tied for second in the league with Bethune-Cookman (15-13, 11-6). The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, which includes UMES (6-21, 3-14) and Morgan State (4-24, 4-13), begins next week in Raleigh, N.C.
"We're not scoring," Mitchell said when asked about his team's recent losing streak. "That's the inconsistency we're dealing with. We have to have that together with defense, or we're going to have problems. ... We have a lot of young people, and I just hope they haven't hit a wall. For a lot of these kids, this is the first time going through this. But this is not high school."
Loyola, on the other hand, just might be peaking at the right time. The Greyhounds (15-12, 8-10) started the season 10-3, but lost six straight games at one point, and have rebounded to win four of their past five.
Collins, who is averaging 26.2 points, became the first player in school history to score 700 points in a season. Loyola will face Canisius (8-19, 6-12), a team it has beaten twice this season, in the first round of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament tonight in Albany, N.Y.
"The league is pretty even," said Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos. "We're right there. Now we have to play well four games in a row. We started out hot, and were hot at the end, so hopefully that will carry over. Canisius is a very good team. We've just caught them at the right time this year."
Towson (12-15, 8-10) would need to pull off a string of major upsets just to reach the final of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, but Neal's expected return should help. Neal is third in the country in scoring (trailing Gonzaga's Adam Morrison and Duke's J.J. Redick), averaging 27.1 points.
The Tigers - whose 12-win total is the school's highest in five years - will face Georgia State (6-21, 3-15), a team they beat twice in the regular season by a combined five points, tonight in Richmond, Va.
The prospects for other local teams aren't quite as bright.
Despite losing four straight games, UMBC (9-18, 5-11) should have a good chance tonight against Stony Brook (4-23, 2-14) in the play-in game of the America East tournament, but a win would mean a matchup with top-seeded Albany (18-10, 13-3), which swept the Retrievers during the regular season.
Navy (10-17, 3-11) heads into the Patriot League tournament having lost four straight, and faces Holy Cross (18-11, 11-3), a team the Midshipmen have not defeated in six years (0-14).
And Mount St. Mary's, which finished fourth in the Northeastern Conference at 11-7, was beaten in its tournament opener last night in Emmitsburg, falling to Robert Morris, 67-66.
The Mountaineers finished the season 13-17.