The 'D' is the key

Coppin and Morgan men counting on improved defense in MEAC tournament

College Basketball

March 10, 2009|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,

By the time Coppin State completed the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular season last week, coach Fang Mitchell no longer knew what the Eagles' best defense was, only that it had to get better for this week's tournament.

Traditionally a man-to-man team, Coppin used a second-half zone to erase a big deficit and get within striking distance of Morgan State in the final minute before losing the finale. It was enough to make Mitchell reconsider strategy.

"I think we can play both" defenses, Mitchell said, "but I think the team wants to play man-to-man, and that's where the problem is. That might not be what is good for them. We're just going to make decisions based on what's good for them in the tournament."

A year ago as the seventh seed in the MEAC tournament in Raleigh, N.C., Coppin's withering defense produced four wins - by a total of six points - and a shocking upset of Morgan in the championship game.

This week, the Eagles (12-18, 9-7) will try to repeat as a fifth seed at Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C. They face North Carolina A&T (16-15, 9-7) in an 8 p.m. quarterfinal Thursday.

"We haven't developed the same kind of defensive intensity," Mitchell said about this season's team. "I don't know what my tempo is anymore."

The Eagles lost four starters from the title team but return Tywain McKee, who was named MEAC Player of the Year at the conference banquet last night. McKee averaged 18.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.9 steals this season.

The Bears (20-11, 13-3) are top seeds again after their second straight regular season title. They open at 7 tomorrow night against the winner of tonight's 9 p.m. play-in game between Florida A&M and Howard.

If Coppin and Morgan win in the quarterfinals, they'll meet in a 7 p.m. semifinal Friday.

Bears coach Todd Bozeman doesn't want to get caught looking ahead, but said he didn't believe last year's loss to Coppin in the championship game will have an impact this year.

"We all have our own things in our mind that we store up," Bozeman said. "With our three seniors and five guys returning, I'm sure that sits there somewhere. To what extent, I don't know. I don't focus on it."

Morgan lost Jamar Smith, the team's leading scorer last season and the MEAC's Most Outstanding Player during the regular season, to a foot injury in the semifinals. The Bears also shot just 12-for-21 at the free throw line, and lost, 62-60, to the Eagles.

"When you get a second chance to do something over, oftentimes you handle it differently," Bozeman said.

Like Coppin, Morgan has turned over its roster. St. Frances graduate Reggie Holmes (16.5 points) has replaced Smith as the leading scorer this season. Kevin Thompson, a 6-foot-8 redshirt freshman from Walbrook, has taken over for shot blocker Boubacar Coly inside. And Jermaine "Itchy" Bolden, a 5-9 junior from Douglass, has replaced Jerrell Green at point guard.

Bozeman, like Mitchell, is counting on his defense to come up big this week.

"This year's team has the potential to be better defensively," Bozeman said. "We've gotten better as the year went on, and a lot of that is because of Itchy. Midway through, he started to buy in. ... He has a lot of weapons around him, and it behooves him to use those weapons and score [only] when he has to score."

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