The MEAC consists of nine historically black schools. The teams have some good guards, some great slashers and very few big men. This year's tournament featured one 7-footer. But most MEAC teams can put on a full-court press that will make you want to throw up your arms and surrender.
That doesn't earn them a lot of ink, however. "We're just not in the loop," says Mitchell. "Some publications don't even mention us. Dickie and the boys, they don't even know we exist." Indeed, the MEAC final was one of Coppin State's rare appearances on ESPN even though the Eagles beat LSU and played St. John's down to the wire earlier this season.
The MEAC's record in the NCAA tournament probably has a little something to do with the lack of attention too. The conference has never won a game in the NCAAs. It has been an automatic L, an ignominious 0-14 since it began getting an automatic berth in 1981. Honestly now, would you give an at-large bid to a conference that has never won a tournament game?
"Look at it this way," says Burden. "Anyone who represents our conference can make history by advancing beyond the first round and knocking off a top seed." The Aggies have certainly had their shot at it. This marks the ninth time they have represented the MEAC in the NCAA tournament, including a string of seven straight appearances in the mid-1980s. Only once has A&T come within 10 points of winning. Last year the Aggies got their usual 16th seed and lost 94-79 to Arkansas in the first round.
"We were just flattered to be there and playing them," says Brice, who scored 20 points against the Razorbacks. "We gave them a game, but they ran away with it in the last three minutes."
Naturally the Aggies insist things will be different this year. It hasn't helped that A&T is working on its third coach in three years, which was one reason for the Aggies' rocky regular season. Last year's coach, Jeff Capel, left to take over at Old Dominion, and Roy Thomas, a longtime junior college coach, moved up to run the A&T program. The Aggies responded by losing five of their first six games. "It was a little frustrating, having to go through another adjustment period," says 6-foot senior guard Phillip Allen, who won the Outstanding Performer Award in the MEAC tournament for the second straight year. "But the four seniors just said, 'Let's go out and do it.' Earlier in the season we wouldn't have won a game like this, but that shows you the character of this team."
The Aggies scored the game-winner in vintage MEAC style. With the score tied with :10 remaining, Allen grabbed the rebound of an ill-conceived Eagle three-pointer and threw a behind-the-back pass to forward John Floyd, who seemed to leave the floor somewhere around half-court on his way to an emphatic game-winning dunk. Amid shouts of "Final Four! Final Four!" the Aggie fans sprinted onto the floor and piled onto their unlikely heroes. "It all starts right here," said Allen, thumping the left side of his chest with his fist. "You got to show heart. That's what this is all about. You just got to say, 'No one's stopping me.' "
No one's stopping the Aggies. Not this week. They're MEAC champs, and they're in the NCAA tournament, and it doesn't matter how badly they get pounded in the first round. It still beats sitting in front of the TV.