Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman remembers the days of fielding phones call from coaches telling him about players they thought could play for the Bears.
Bozeman, now in his fourth season, politely rejected those suggestions and continued to pursue players who could compete in higher conferences, but wanted to play for Morgan State. After two consecutive Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament championships, two straight trips to the NCAA tournament and an appearance in the NIT, the Bears are landing marquee players and are now considered one of the top mid-major programs in the nation.
Expectations are high this season as the Bears return five players, including Kevin Thompson and DeWayne Jackson, and add seven newcomers who are expected to make an immediate impact. The Bears, who finished 27-10 last season and lost to West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament, are favored to win the MEAC again despite losing Reggie Holmes — the program's all-time leading scorer — to graduation. But Bozeman and his squad are not worried about predictions — it's all about getting it done on the court.
"We've been the preseason No. 1 team before," said Bozeman, who was named the Hugh Durham Mid-Major Coach of the Year in 2009. "Those are just preseason predictions. We don't get carried away with that type of thing. We don't want to get carried away with that. We do get everyone's best shot. And when people try to go to the tournament, they do want to have on their resume that they beat a mid-major tournament team. The reality is if you want to be successful, then you have to be comfortable with that and you have to accept that. I think the guys have accepted that."
The Bears will be led by Thompson (Walbrook), the MEAC's Defensive Player of the Year last season. Thompson averaged 12.7 points, a league-best 11.9 rebounds and shot 52 percent from the field last season. He had 22 double-doubles — third best among NCAA Division I players — and grabbed 25 rebounds against Towson, a season-high for Division I players.
Thompson spent part of the offseason working out with the football team and said he is prepared for the rigors of the regular season.
"We come out every game the same way," said Thompson, who is the MEAC's Preseason Player of the Year. "We're prepared. I'm trying to talk to the newcomers about what coach expects."
Jackson, a dynamic player who was named MEAC Rookie of the Year last season, averaged 10.1 points and 4.3 rebounds with 30 steals, 28 blocks, and 26 assists in 37 games. He also led the MEAC in 3-point field goal percentage (.458) and scored in double figures 21 times.
"The goal is we are just trying to win," Jackson said. "I'm looking to do whatever coach wants me to do on the floor and be a leader for the team."
The Bears return two seniors in Rodney Stokes and Gene Johnson. Stokes, a center from Old Mill, has started 41 of 82 career games and is a solid defender in the post. Junior forward Ameer Ali started 21 of 35 games last season.
Among the newcomers is Ian Chiles, a 7-foot-2, 270-pound redshirt freshman center from Cliffside Park, N.J.
"He will make a major contribution to the program," Bozeman said. "However, we don't put that type of pressure on freshmen."
Also in the mix are freshmen Justin Black, a 6‐2, 210-pound combo guard from DeMatha, and Justin Jackson, a 5-10, 175‐pound guard from Digital Harbor, and junior transfers Tola Lawal, a two-time NJCAA All-American at Erie (N.Y.) Community College, Larry Bastfield (Towson Catholic), a point guard who started his career at Toledo, and swingman Aric Brooks (St. Frances), formerly of Jacksonville State.
Morgan State plays another competitive schedule, opening Nov. 12 at Loyola Marymount. The season also includes trips to Louisville and Syracuse. The Bears, however, now embrace games in large, sold-out arenas on big-time college campuses.
"We have more guys than we ever had before who are on the same page and have experience," Bozeman said. "When you have those guys with that experience of going to the post-season, they come back with an expectation level. They have a different swagger, a different demeanor. That is what we are experiencing right now. Hopefully, we can build on that."
Eagles and rest of MEAC chasing Morgan State
Coppin State is looking to rebound from last season's 8-22 campaign, which included an 11th-place finish in the MEACE with a 3-13 record. The Eagles, who return three starters and welcome eight newcomers, were picked 10th in the preseason MEAC poll.
Ron "Fang" Mitchell is gearing up for his 25th season at Coppin State, the longest tenure of any local coach.
Junior Michael Harper is the Eagles leading returning scorer, averaging 9.9 points and 3.8 rebounds last season. Senior Vince Goldsberry will lead the backcourt and averaged 8.7 points and 3.6 rebounds. Branden Doughty, who earned MEAC All-Rookie honors last season, averaged 6.4 points and 5.2 rebounds.