Morgan, Coppin enter MEAC tournament with realistic NCAA hopes

Bears seeking third straight league crown; Eagles want to recapture 2008 magic

March 09, 2011|By Ken Murray, The Baltimore Sun

For the first time since Todd Bozeman elevated Morgan State to prominence in mid-major basketball, the Bears are no longer the team to beat in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

When they open defense of their MEAC title against North Carolina A&T in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Thursday at 8 p.m., the fourth-seeded Bears will carry the school's first three-game losing streak since Bozeman arrived five seasons ago.

Any number of teams will vie for Morgan's title this week, including No. 1-seed Bethune-Cookman (19-11), No. 2-seed Hampton (21-8) and even No. 3-seed Coppin State (16-13), which beat the Bears last week.

Bozeman, however, finds solace in the fact that while Morgan State (15-13) has not shot well this season and suffered lapses in post defense, the Bears were still fighting for first place in February and for second in their regular-season finale.

"That's a sign of how far the program has come," Bozeman said this week. "I feel good that we've had four straight winning seasons. We just haven't been as dominant."

A year after Morgan earned its second straight NCAA appearance and won its third straight regular-season MEAC title behind sharp-shooter Reggie Holmes, the Bears are last in 3-point shooting and ranked seventh in scoring offense.

But more than the loss of Holmes, Bozeman laments the loss of point guards Sean Thomas and Joe Davis, both of whom were suspended this season for undisclosed reasons. (Thomas will return next season; Davis will not.)

"Not having Reggie was big, but not having those other guys was bigger," Bozeman said. "But we've always been able to sustain losses here."

These losses left the offense in the hands of first-year transfer Larry Bastfield (Towson Catholic, Toledo) and freshman Justin Black. On a team that in the last four seasons produced two players of the year, two defensive players of the year and two rookies of the year in the MEAC, Morgan had just one player — DeWayne Jackson — make first team all-conference.

Bozeman brought 6-foot-9 Kevin Thompson off the bench for the past month to alleviate the post player's foul tendencies and shuffled his lineup all season searching for the right combination.

The Bears are still the best rebounding team in the conference — Thompson averages almost nine a game — and they haven't lost a MEAC tournament game since 2008, when they were derailed in the championship game by Coppin and Tywain McKee.

Vince Goldsberry, a freshman on Coppin's 2008 team, hopes to recreate the magic of that season.

"It was a great feeling to have as a freshman," he said. "But it would be a better feeling to have as a senior."

Goldsberry is one of two seniors on a young team that coach Fang Mitchell rebuilt overnight, bringing in eight new players. The Eagles led the league in scoring offense, with 73.2 points a game, and were first in 3-point field-goal percentage (.369).

Michael Harper, a quicksilver defender and dunking sensation, led the Eagles with 15.5 points a game. Akeem Ellis, a 6-6 junior-college transfer out of Brooklyn, N.Y., came on at season's end to average 12.6. But no player has yet replaced McKee as the floor leader, Mitchell says.

The difference in that 2008 team and this Coppin team is experience and leadership.

"They were determined," Mitchell said of a team that won four games in four nights by a grand total of six points in 2008. "This team is determined also. We've been in holes before and we've battled.

"The issue becomes the leadership down the stretch of these games, and when you get in the tournament, you're going to have tight games."

Coppin faces Norfolk State, a 68-53 winner over Howard on Wednesday, in Thursday's 6 p.m. quarterfinal. Until Mitchell sees how his young team responds in the MEAC spotlight, he won't make any predictions.

"I'd say this team could win the tournament, and this team could lose the first game," he said. "That's how balanced the conference is."

Coming off an 8-22 season, Coppin has no shortage of motivation. In the preseason poll, the Eagles were picked to finish in a tie with Florida A&M for 10th place in the 11-team league.

"Last year, I think they had potential too, but everybody was just for themselves," Ellis said. "This year, we want to make something happen."

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