The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference basketball championship tournament, scheduled to begin March 8, has attracted more followers than normal this year, thanks in large part to the outstanding play of its top-ranked team, the Morgan State Bears. The Bears have won 23 games this season (nine losses), and are 10-1 in the MEAC. If they win their conference tournament, they will become the first team to win the MEAC season and tournament title in back-to-back years since Hampton University did so in 2001-2002.

But winning the MEACs, which has been described by many as the “battle of the HBCUs,” isn’t the reason why several fans are looking forward to the MEAC tournament finals. It’s the prize offered to the MEAC champs that has most Black college fans tuning in.

Since summer 1980, the MEAC has been classified as a Division I conference by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and any team to win a Division I conference tournament receives an automatic qualification to the NCAA men’s basketball championship tournament. Howard University became one of the first HBCUs to compete in the NCAA tournament when they captured the MEAC tournament title in 1981. Coppin State made NCAA history 16 years later when they claimed a first round victory as a No. 15 seed against No. 2 seed South Carolina. Hampton is the only other MEAC representative to win a game in the NCAA tournament when they beat No. 2 seed Iowa State in 2001.

Both victories are ranked among ESPN’s Top 10 greatest tournament upsets in NCAA history because not many expected such low-ranked teams to beat the more popular, traditionally White programs in the nation. But Howard University Sports Information Director Edward Hill Jr. said expectations were even lower when MEAC was created 40 years ago.

“There were a lot of naysayers when Black folks decided they were going to bring together multiple Black colleges and universities to form a conference that would compete in Division I of the NCAA,” said Hill, who will be inducted into the MEAC Hall of Fame on March 6 after nearly three decades of service. “A lot of people didn’t believe it would ever happen; some folks didn’t think there would be an all-Black school conference in existence even today. But not only are we here, our conference has also produced world class athletes that have performed on the greatest stages of nearly every professional sport in America. So when you think about that, you have to be proud of how far we’ve come.”

But since the integration of collegiate athletics, a majority of the best African-American athletes have taken scholarship offers to traditionally White universities with well-established athletic programs because the national stage they compete on offers a greater chance of being recruited by the pros. However, Coppin State Athletic Director Derrick Ramsey said there’s still a ton of talented athletes that choose HBCUs instead, thanks to the MEAC.

“I still remember when coach Fang led our Eagles to a huge victory against South Carolina back in 1997, and how that upset win really put HBCU athletics back on the map,” said Ramsey, a pro football legend who attended Kentucky University, currently one of the top-ranked basketball programs in the country.

“ Todd Bozeman has been doing the same thing this year with our neighbor, Morgan State. Even if they don’t reach the NCAA tournament, they’ve already won enough to show the world they have one of the better programs in the NCAA, HBCU or not.”

The Bears have climbed their way up to 20th place in the CollegeInsider.com Top 25 Mid-Major programs rankings because of their success against some of the tougher non-conference opponents this season. They beat popular programs like University of Arkansas, claiming their first win in school history against a Southeastern Conference team (SEC), and nearly defeated Top 25-ranked University of Louisville of the powerhouse Big East Conference.

Those non-conference wins have helped the Bears record three straight 20-plus-win seasons, which is a first.

“Morgan State is doing a great job of promoting our conference by not only taking on these high-profiled non-conference teams, but also beating them,” Hill said. “And because we’re producing winners from our conference, we’re putting pressure on the national media to provide consistent coverage. We’ve had national TV coverage before, but it would be off and on. Now, we have an excellent agreement with ESPNU, which helps those outstanding athletes who decided to attend an HBCU to showcase their talents nationally, too.”

 

Perry Green

AFRO Sports Editor