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MEAC Monday: Four teams that have impressed in non-conference play

There’s always a positive sign — even in buy-game season.

NCAA Basketball: Coppin State at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

A significant portion of the college basketball season has quickly gone by, as conference play has already started or will be starting soon. The first week of January marks the start of conference play in the MEAC. The madness will ensue as 10 teams (sorry, Florida A&M) will be fighting for the MEAC’s automatic bid.

But before that starts, there’s been some notable signs within conference play. With this being said, here are four MEAC teams that have shown positive signs in non-conference play thus far.

Bethune-Cookman

NCAA Basketball: Bethune-Cookman at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Notable games: vs. Eastern Illinois (66-63 win), @ Georgia Tech (68-65 loss)
Positive signs: Key pieces are in place, overall competitiveness

Bethune-Cookman was tabbed to win the MEAC last year but struggled; an early-round exit to Howard in the conference tournament ended their season. Fast forward to now, and the Wildcats do not look that way. Head coach Ryan Ridder returns a loaded squad: Isaiah Bailey returns after missing the majority of last season, while Cletrell Pope (12.7 PPG, 12.0 RPG) and fifth-year senior Malik Maitland return as well.

The Wildcats picked up three wins at Incarnate Word’s multi-team event. They started the classic with a 25-point victory over the host team, then squeezed out a three-point victory over Eastern Illinois. After that, they pushed Georgia Tech in Atlanta. They led for over 20 minutes and it took a late three from the Yellow Jackets to take the victory. Cletrell Pope grabbed 19 rebounds and scored 20 points in the loss.

Quite frankly, BCU looks like it’s in mid-season form. Most of the Wildcats’ games have been competitive and they are playing to their strengths. Cletrell Pope, the MEAC Preseason Player of the Year, already has six double-doubles on the season. He leads the nation with 120 total rebounds. With himself, Maitland, Bailey, and their supporting cast, it’s been a great showing for the Wildcats so far.

Coppin State

NCAA Basketball: Coppin State at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Notable games: @ Loyola-Chicago (76-72 win), vs. Cornell (68-66 win), @ East Carolina (85-75 win)
Positive sign: Winning non-conference games

During the 2018-19 season, Coppin State did not win a game until Jan. 5. The season before that, Jan. 8. Dec. 15 the year before that. And if you’re counting D1 wins, Jan. 16 the year before that.

Going into this year, Coppin hadn’t beaten a D-I team in non-conference play since 2013. They hadn’t beaten two in a row since 2000. Yeah, that’s some major news coming out of West Baltimore. And in Baltomore’s crowded mid-major scene, the Eagles are making the most noise so far.

Juan Dixon’s team defeated East Carolina and Loyola-Chicago on the road. They went toe-to-toe with Cornell and won. An HBCU beating an Ivy League school brings an added boost to the situation as well.

The potential doesn’t stop there, as Coppin State has a coach to face Davidson this week and compete with Miami as well. And locally, they have a chance to beat UMBC.

Overall, it seems the Eagles have stepped up their game overnight. It starts with Dejuan Clayton. The shifty, MEAC first-team guard is one of the top returning scorers in the conference. He has some new weapons, as Kamar McKnight (Tennessee State), Koby Thomas (Robert Morris), and brothers Andrew and Aaron Robinson from Quinnipiac all have transferred into the program.

Coppin State is here and it isn’t waiting until MEAC play to make a statement.

Norfolk State

NCAA Basketball: Norfolk State at Siena David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Notable games: @ Ole Miss, (68-55 loss), @ Northwestern (70-59 loss)
Positive signs: Younger players gaining experience, close losses translating into growth

If you’ve kept up with my work, I wrote about head coach Robert Jones and Norfolk State’s impressive consistency. Somehow, the program has never had a losing season in MEAC play. That’s almost 25 years of consistency in a conference that is not consistent due to transfers and the toughness of staying on top.

After upsetting Alabama in the NIT during the postseason, Jones had to go back to the drawing board. Not because his team was bad, it’s because the majority of his team is new. Seven of the team’s top eight scorers from a season ago are gone, four through graduation and three via transfer. Walking into this season, over 65% of the Spartans roster did not play a single second. It’s growing pains.

Despite that, the Spartans have played hard against stiff competition. They had a 10-point lead at Northwestern in their close loss. On the road against Ole Miss, they played fairly close. Overall, the Spartans have lost five games by 11 points or less.

Yes, that might seem bad but it signals that it’s a growing process. And as we’ve seen with NSU for years now, that process will lead to victories in MEAC play.

Morgan State

NCAA Basketball: Morgan State at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Notable games: @ George Washington (68-64 win), vs. Evansville (115-112 3OT loss)
Positive signs: Aggressive defensive, improved team unity

Morgan State didn’t renew Coach Todd Bozeman’s contract during the offseason. He was a campus favorite and took the Bears to two NCAA Tournaments. On the flip side, that was early in his stint and the Bears wasn’t playing the best team basketball during the past few seasons.

Enter Kevin Broadus. Broadus comes to Morgan from the University of Maryland, College Park, where he has been one of the nation’s best recruiters as the top assistant on Mark Turgeon’s coaching staff. He was on Georgetown’s staff during its last Final Four run as well.

He’s a recruiter and unlike other coaches within the Maryland and DC mid-major scene, he was raised in the area, played in the area and coached at the top two programs within the area. He knows what he’s doing. That translates into Morgan’s current roster.

The Bears first D1 opponent was against Temple. The score wasn’t close, but the experience was needed. The following weekend, the Bears won a buy game against George Washington on the road. Coach Broadus signaled that the win is the biggest non-conference win since Morgan State defeated Maryland in 2008. During the Islands of the Bahamas Showcase, they went toe-to-toe against Evansville — you know, the team that taught Kentucky how to play basketball — and in that contest, the Bears lasted three overtimes in a three-point loss.

With those games and losses against Liberty, Ohio State and Towson, it’s been a mixed bag of results.

But what’s different is the Bears aggression. They lead the nation in fouls, which is bad, but it comes with the territory of learning how to play a new, more aggressive defense. Their full-court press and instant pressure forces teams to take unwanted jumpers. Offensively, Morgan State passes the ball around way more often than people are used to. Stanley Davis, Sherwyn Devonish-Prince and Florida Gulf Coast transfer Troy Baxter have been the players to watch.