Close Doesn't Count
Coppin State coach Ron (Fang) Mitchell sat alone in a corner of a locker room in Hill Field House at Morgan State in Baltimore, staring a hole through the wall and wondering what terrible deeds he had committed in a previous life. His players and assistant coaches were gone now, and so were all their big plans. They had ridden a 17-game winning streak, the nation's longest, into the championship game of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) tournament last Saturday, and they were expecting to ride right into the field of 64 in the NCAAs. This was supposed to be their year, their chance to prove at last that they could be more in the national tournament than just a lovable tuneup for a top-seeded team.
In the end there seemed to be just one area in which these Coppin kids needed work: picking the right spot for a letdown. North Carolina A&T outplayed the Eagles in the final minutes of the frantic MEAC title game, and the Aggies slipped away with a 66-64 victory. It was Coppin's first loss in two months, and it sure put a damper on a terrific 20-9 season. The MEAC works the old-fashioned way: It's one of about 17 conferences in which the winner moves on to the NCAAs and everyone else is out of luck.
Even within the flesh-eating confines of college basketball, it didn't seem fair. A&T needed the win just to finish over .500 (15-14), but the Aggies still get the bid. The best Coppin can hope for is a spot in the NIT, not much consolation for a team that has won 47 of its last 48 regular-season conference games. "I don't want to sound like I'm crying or anything," said Mitchell, "but they really shouldn't play this tournament."
Mitchell looked like a boxer who went down in the 12th round while leading on all three cards. And this wasn't the first time he had been the victim of a late KO. His Eagles had lost by a point to eighth-seeded Morgan State in the first round of the MEAC tournament last year after going undefeated in the conference regular season. This year they came apart in crunch time against A&T, a team they had destroyed just two weeks earlier.
Now the Aggies not only get the MEAC's bid to the NCAAs for the second straight year, they'll also get most of the money that goes with it. North Carolina A&T will keep half of the NCAA tournament payoff, a quarter will go to the conference, and the other quarter will be divided evenly among all the MEAC schools. Last year's MEAC tournament win earned A&T $128,000, according to athletic director Willie Burden.
"There's just so much pressure when you make it all depend on one game," said Mitchell. "It's like you just discount all you accomplished during the year. I wish we could be like Penn [which is a member of the Ivy League, one of only three conferences that don't have a postseason tournament]. Win during the season, and you're in."
That's just not going to happen, of course. The MEAC tournament is too good, and the high stakes only serve to make it more intense. Who cares who wins the Big East tournament this weekend? Who remembers a week later? When a conference sends as many as a half-dozen teams to the NCAAs, the league tournament has a way of becoming exhibition season.
The MEAC doesn't have that problem. The players don't treat this tournament as if it were a matter of life or death. They play as if it's more important than that. "It's as simple as this," says A&T guard Tyrone Brice. "You win, you're in the Big Dance. You lose, you watch on TV. That's a lot of motivation for teams like us."
Brice was so excited 10 minutes before the championship game that he could be seen in line for the facilities in the public men's room on the first floor of Hill Field House. No one would have noticed if it hadn't been for the fact that he was in uniform. In this conference the stars are not afraid to mingle with the little people.