Tuesday , Nov , 09 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Brian Mason, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: South Carolina State and Coppin State finished in a tie for first
place in the final MEAC standings last season, but it was the Florida A&M
Rattlers that came away with the 2004 MEAC Tournament Championship. A&M was
rewarded with a first round loss to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament, but it
was a strong step in the right direction for a program that was expected to
finish somewhere near the bottom half of the league standings. The Rattlers
again will not get the recognition that they deserve this season, as most
predictions have them finishing around fourth or fifth in the standings. Coach
Mike Gillespie’s squad will likely finish higher than that, as it has a
plethora of talent and experience returning this season. That being said,
South Carolina State and Coppin State should be right there with the Rattlers
atop the MEAC standings, as both programs have the ability to run away with
the title. This year’s version of Florida A&M could be either Hampton or
Delaware State. Hampton returns two of its top scorers from a season ago
(Devin Green and Jeff Granger) and an influx of young talent brought in by
coach Bobby Collins could give the Pirates a chance to contend rather quickly.
The Hornets lost three starters from last year’s team that went 11-7 in
conference play, but coach Greg Jackson has always gotten his players to buy
into his tough defensive system and this season should be no different.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: South Carolina State

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. South Carolina State; 2. Florida A&M; 3. Coppin
State; 4. Delaware State; 5. Hampton; 6. Morgan State; 7. Norfolk State;
8. Howard; 9. Bethune-Cookman; 10. Maryland-Eastern Shore; 11. North Carolina
A&T

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

SOUTH CAROLINA STATE – Head coach Ben Betts did a solid job in guiding the
Bulldogs in his first season at the helm in 2003, as they finished 14-4 in
conference play and 18-11 overall. Betts should have an even more impressive
second season behind the bench for SCSU, as he returns his entire starting
five from last year, including the consensus preseason Player of the Year in
the MEAC, Thurman Zimmerman. A former transfer from Temple, Zimmerman has been
the most dominant player in this conference since his arrival, finishing third
in scoring last year with an average of 18.8 ppg and second in rebounding with
8.4 rpg. He is the defending MEAC Player of the Year and a recipient of All-
American honors, but he is not the only player on the roster that could come
away with those types of awards this season. Brian Mason, the 2003 Freshman of
the Year in the MEAC, is an outstanding player who can play both guard and
forward. He ranked second on the team last year with 13.5 ppg and also grabbed
5.0 rpg and shot an impressive 41.9 percent from behind the arc. The tandem of
Zimmerman and Mason should be enough for the Bulldogs to come away with
another MEAC regular season title, but Betts must get more out of the rest of
the team if they want to make a trip back to the NCAA Tournament.

FLORIDA A&M – Coach Gillespie has to make sure this season that his Rattlers
get off to a fast start, as to not let doubt creep into his players minds that
last season was just a fluke. A&M started last season slow, but after beating
Lehigh in the opening game of the NCAA Tournament, it was obvious that the
Rattlers were strong finishers and deserved the automatic berth to the Big
Dance. Repeating that feat will not be easy for Gillespie and his squad this
season, but their depth inside makes it a possibility. Michael Harper will
lead a talented frontcourt, as he is coming off a 2003 campaign in which he
averaged 13.3 ppg and 4.7 rpg. Michael Ayodele (5.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Richard
Russell (3.8 ppg) should also step up their games this season, but the player
to watch could be Glenn Elliott, a 6-9 center who transferred from Temple.
Elliott could be a dominant player in the paint for the Rattlers, using his
size and strength to not only clog up the lane, but also dominate in it at the
offensive end of the court.

COPPIN STATE – The Eagles proved last season that they were once again one of
the top teams in the MEAC, finishing with a league mark of 14-4 and an overall
record of 18-14. Coach Fang Mitchell guided his squad to wins in 10 of their
11 games down the stretch and with scoring, depth and size returning to this
year’s team, a return to the top of the standings is very much a possibility.
However, the team was hit with some unwanted news near the end of October, as
coach Mitchell had to have surgery to remove a benign tumor. Although Mitchell
is healing as scheduled from the surgery, he will likely have to miss some
time on the sidelines. The Eagles need Mitchell back as soon as possible, with
a schedule that finds them playing Big 12 powers Texas and Oklahoma very early
on. Nicholas King will be asked to step up his game and will take over as the
squad’s most reliable scorer after averaging 10.8 ppg and 4.3 rpg in 2003.
Guard Raheem Scott should also have a strong campaign for the Eagles, as he
builds off of being named to the MEAC All-Tournment team last season after
averaging 10.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 3.6 apg in three games.

DELAWARE STATE – The Hornets were able to go 11-7 in conference play last
season, but after losing three starters from that squad, 2004 could be
somewhat of an uphill battle and a learning process. Coach Greg Jackson, who
is in his fifth season with Delaware State, will rely heavily on forward
Terrance Hunter to keep his team moving in the right direction. Hunter led the
Hornets in scoring last season with 12.6 ppg and was second in rebounding with
5.2 rpg. Joshua Bluntt and Aaron Williams will likely start in the backcourt
for the Hornets, with both players having displayed the ability to handle the
ball with ease and drain the long shot when needed. The one player that could
make or break this season for Delaware State is 6-10 center Reggie Rizer.
Rizer needs to improve his scoring touch inside, but he fits perfectly into
Jackson’s type of defensive scheme, which works on halfcourt dominance in the
paint.

HAMPTON – Just like the Hornets of Delaware State, Hampton finished with a
conference mark of 11-7 last season. Although the Pirates had two more overall
losses (13-17) than the Hornets, Hampton showed that it is ready to take the
jump to the next level under coach Bobby Collins. Jeff Granger returns as one
of the more prolific scorers in the conference, having averaged 15.0 ppg last
season. However, the player that makes this team go is forward/guard Devin
Green, who nearly left the team before last season. Green decided to stay with
the Pirates and excelled, scoring a team-high 15.2 ppg and grabbing an
impressive 7.6 rpg. Although Green and Granger make up one of the best inside-
outside tandems in the MEAC, their is little depth behind them and the
experience on the rest of the team is lacking. Brandon Steeler, a runner-up
for Mr. Basketball honors in North Carolina a year ago, should get much more
playing time in his sophomore campaign and with good reason. Steeler is an
athletically gifted scorer who could make the Pirates into one of the top
three teams in the MEAC this season.

MORGAN STATE – Coach Butch Beard has not turned this program around in his
three years at the helm, posting a disappointing record of 21-63. This season
could mark his last chance at turning the Bears into a winning team. Although
they were able to finish with a respectable league mark of 9-9 in 2003, Morgan
State went just 11-16 overall and still has not won a regular-season title
since 1976. The Bears lost only one starter from last year’s squad, but with
only one of those players being taller than 6-4, it may not be all that
helpful. The team’s leading scorer and rebounder from a season ago (11.0 ppg,
6.2 rpg), Aaron Andrews was granted a fifth year of eligibility and guard
Christopher Grant (10.3 ppg) will have the luxury of feeding him the ball
early and often this season. However, Grant could get pushed for playing time
by freshman Aaron Lollar, who has look outstanding in the preseason. Guard Sam
Brand should receive most of the playing time at shooting guard and although
he averaged just 9.9 ppg last season, he did prove to be a lethal three-point
shooter (39.2 percent).

NORFOLK STATE – The Spartans had a winning record in conference play last year
(10-8), but once again fell short against their non-conference opponents,
posting a record of just 2-9 in those contests. However, that could quickly
change for Norfolk State this season, as it has depth surrounding talented
guard Chakowby Hicks. Hicks led the team in scoring last season with an
average of 15.9 ppg and he also contributed with 5.9 rpg and a team-high 3.9
apg. His ability to dominate at the other end of the court should also not go
unnoticed, as Hicks finished with a team-high 86 steals and 16 blocks, which
helped to earn him preseason All-Conference honors this year. Ryan Grier will
play both shooting guard and small forward, which should help take some of the
pressure off of Hicks. Grier finished second on the team in scoring last year
with 12.7 ppg and he also was a force on the boards, grabbing 4.3 rpg. Norfolk
State not only returns Hicks and Grier, but it also got a gift from the
fallout at St. Bonaventure, with talented center Bruce Brown transferring to
the Spartans. Brown is an extremely gifted rebounder, who could become a
potent inside scorer with some help from head coach Dwight Freeman, who is in
his third year coaching Norfolk State.

HOWARD – The Bison will live and die by the play of forward/center James
Wilkinson this season. The team’s leading scorer from a season ago, Wilkinson
was a force both scoring (13.0 ppg) and rebounding (6.1 rpg) the ball. He was
recently named to the MEAC’s Preseason All-Conference squad and will be
counted on even more this season with the loss of Seye Aluko (10.7 ppg, 5.9
rpg) from the lineup. Point guard Louis Ford will also be asked to step up his
game, as he is coming off a 2003 campaign in which he averaged 9.6 ppg and a
squad-best 5.1 apg. Ford has also proven to be a solid rebounder from the
guard position, grabbing 4.1 rpg in 2003-04. However, coach Frankie Allen
(47-70 record in four seasons with Howard) needs Ford to cut down on his
turnovers, as he led the team with 100 turnovers in just 28 games last year.
If Ford and Wilkinson can take their games to the next level, this squad will
far exceed its 4-14 conference mark from a season ago.

BETHUNE COOKMAN – The Wildcats’ record of 7-11 in MEAC action was actually
somewhat of a surprise last season. Bethune Cookman was picked by most to
finish at the very bottom of the MEAC standings, but coach Cliff Reed got the
most out of his players late in the season and could do so once again this
year. Reed has done an excellent job in bringing talent in, which includes
this year’s talented freshmen, Jordan Carrier and Antonio Webb. Both players
were outstanding scorers in high school and with a little bit of time in
Reed’s offensive system, both players could flourish in their very first year
in Dayton Beach. Diondre Larmond returns as the team’s most gifted player from
a season ago, even though he started only seven of the team’s 29 games.
Larmond finished as the squad’s leading scorer with 10.7 ppg and he also
grabbed 4.0 rpg and shot a solid 35.3 percent from behind the arc. Reed’s
squad will definitely not have a winning overall record, but if his young
players come along quickly, it could be above the .500 mark in conference
play.

MARYLAND-EASTERN SHORE – The Hawks again finished near the bottom of the MEAC
standings in 2003, going just 6-12 in conference play and only 8-21 overall.
That led to the release of coach Thomas Trotter at the end of the season and
the hiring of Larry Lessette. This is Lessette’s first head coaching gig and
it will be an uphill battle for him most of the way, as the team lost Tee
Trotter, who was one of the leading scorers in the MEAC last year with an
average of 19.3 ppg. In fact, the Hawks have just three seniors on the squad
this season and none of them saw much action last season. The one player that
could rise above the rest for this squad is a transfer from Duquesne, point
guard Aly Samabaly. Lessette would prefer to run a fast-break style of offense
and Samabaly fits that mold perfectly, as he usually looks to pass first and
distribute the ball. Unfortunately there won’t be many reliable scorers for
him to dish the ball to.

NORTH CAROLINA A&T – Jerry Eaves was brought in to rebuild the Aggies, but his
first season was one of disappointment, as they finished with just three wins
(3-25). All three of those victories came in conference play for Eaves, who
watched as his squad go 3-15 in MEAC play. Fortunately for Eaves, the team
returns solid scoring options in both Sean Booker and Steven Koger. Booker,
who was named to the All-MEAC rookie squad last year, did not start a single
contest in 2003 but was still able to score a team-high 14.5 ppg and grab 3.7
rpg. Koger, who also saw most of his time on the floor in a reserve role,
chipped in with 9.1 ppg despite shooting just 28.5 percent from the floor and
a mere 26.4 percent from beyond the arc. Eaves will need his team to play
better defense this season after allowing over 74 ppg last season, but without
an influx of talent and with little size or experience on the squad, it will
be hard to accomplish.