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Eagles relish early-season underdog role

Coppin State’s brutal nonconference schedule helps them ‘toughen up.’
Tuesday, November 28, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:55 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Coppin State men’s basketball media guide refers to it as “The Upset.” There are two pages dedicated to the one game.

In 1997, the Eagles shocked the second-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell, in his 20th year as the Eagles’ coach, said one of the primary reasons his team upset South Carolina was preparation.

Every season, Mitchell schedules tough nonconference road games so his team gets accustomed to being the underdog. And nothing has changed this year. For the Eagles, playing at Mizzou Arena on Monday was just another game on a schedule that includes visits to many big-name schools, such as Kansas State, Oklahoma, Alabama, Connecticut and No. 1-ranked Ohio State.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve played these games where we’ll play anywhere anytime,” Mitchell said. “I truly believe that you learn so much about the character of your team. And you understand who is going to be there and who isn’t going to be there for you when you play this type of competition.”

While the Eagles fell to the Tigers 98-77 on Monday, the game helped Mitchell get an idea of how the team will play during the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference season. He said the nonconference games for Coppin State are almost like exhibition games. He is just looking for what the team needs to improve on before conference play begins.

“It helps so much going into the conference season,” Mitchell said. “These guys go through adversity. It toughens us up to where when we go into our conference. We understand how good competition can be. So we’re not afraid of anything.”

Last year was a prime example for Coppin State. The Eagles went winless during their nonconference season before finishing second in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

“It helps us a lot because now we’re playing against the best teams in the country,” junior Antwan Harrison said. “Once we get into conference, we’re used

to playing at a higher level. So if we continue to play at a higher level when we get to our conference, we’re going to have a good conference season.”

The drawback is the team is on the road for almost the entire preconference schedule. The Eagles’ stop in Columbia is in the middle of a 10-day road trip.

“It’s tough being on the road all the time,” Harrison said. “It’s tiresome, but it’s worth it.”

The long road trips mean the players miss a lot of class time. Harrison estimated he had been to class once in the past two weeks, and the Eagles still have six days left in their road trip.

Mitchell said he met with his team before the season to see if they were OK with the amount of time they’d be spending away from home.

“They like it. They enjoy it,” Mitchell said. “It gives them an opportunity to play in a big arena, to play against people they’ve seen on television and teams they’ve heard about.”

But for Mitchell, the games mean more than that. Once the Eagles are in the postseason conference tournament is when nonconference games like these help the most, he said.

“I’m concerned about one thing,” Mitchell said. “And that’s winning. And this, right now, is all about helping us play well in the conference. We have to win that tournament at the end of the year and get to the NCAA.”

It also gives Coppin State a chance to be in the national spotlight for a day, like in March of 1997.

“We’re not a big-time program, but we get a chance to play all the big schools,” Harrison said. “We feel like we have the talent to knock off one or two of the big schools. And then all of a sudden, we’re on ESPN.”


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