It would be easy for the Howard Bison to waltz into the MEAC tournament that starts tonight in Greensboro, NC., with a terminal case of self-satisfaction.
After all, Howard has picked itself up by the sweat sock, rising from a 9-19 record to 16-9 in one year. From MEAC tailender the Bison have moved up to tie for second place. Just last Saturday Howard upset conference champ South Carolina State by 11 points.
It's easy for a team that's been down to settle for respectability, to dislocate its shoulder patting its own back.
Respectability is not enough for coach A. B. Williamson, who led his old Eastern High School teams at their peak to the No. 1 ranking in the nation.
His Bison left for Greensboro yesterday, "meaner and grouchier than we've been all year. When we step on the floor against North Carolina A&T (at 9 p.m.) we're going to have a lot of angry young men, and the coach isn't smiling too much either," said Williamson.
Williamson has convinced his team there is much to be angry about. "You can't be mad and jittery at the same time," chuckles Williamson, whose Bison team a year ago was so nervous in its MEAC opener that "we missed nine layups and lost by two points."
When Williamson wants his Bison to get into a stampeding mood, he just mentions three things: 1) their previous game a A&T when the home fans threw bottles at the Bison bus; 2) Monday's 23-point loss to powerful St. John's, a steam that "pushed us around and made us look like we were standing still; and the MEAC coin flip.
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Either Howard or N.C. Central (tied for second) was in line for the plum of playing lowly Delaware State, an almost certain victory, in the opening round. The other would meet the host school, A&T - a talented, erratic bunch able to beat any team, in the conference on a conscious night.
"We weren't there for the coin toss," said Williamson, his voice dripping sarcasm, "but they tell us we lost.
"Of course it just so happens that gives both North Carolina teams a better draw and also increases the gate," he added. "I know how Lefty Driesell feels when they get him alone down there on Tobacco Road in the ACC tournament. It's a lesson in how the world works."
Williamson has his crew in an us-against-the-world mood. "We had a head-to-head talk after we lost to St. John's," he said. "Beef (muscle) is the name of the game underneath these days and they sure shoved us around. We stayed with 'em for 23 minutes, clippings or were worn out psychologically. We went into slow motion."
After a little late-night group therapy and a get-it-off-your-chest session, Howard held practice the next morning. "We had a few fights in the gym," grinned Williamson. "That was nice to see."
Despite a year in which Howard has lost seven games by a total of 20 points - "little mental lapses at just the wrong time" - Williamson thinks his cast is ready for opening night.
"We might not win, but we're going to be in it. There really isn't a favorite," he said. "I've told (sixth-man) John Smith that if he plays at both ends of the court like he can, we'll win it."
Smith, a 6-5 swingman, may be the most spectacularly up-and-down Bison, scoring 18 one night and four the next, but the team's mainsprings are still 6-7 forward Gerald Glover and 6-10 center Dorian Dent.
"Glover is now playing like a captain should," says Williamson. "He has thrown down some dunks when I thought he was five-feet from the basket. His arms seem to stretch an extra foot. He has always been a leader, but early in the season sometimes it seemed like he was leading us astray."
With all the specters Williamsons sees haunting his team - the officials ("based in Durham"), the pairings ("A&T, Central and probably Morgan State back-to-back), and the crowd ("I went to A&T. I know how loud we were") - still expects to escape the Greensboro Collseum chamber of horrors with the MEAC title.
"I'm not happy with a 16-9 record though some people seem to be," Williamson said. "We'd have to win this tournament just to get where I thought we'd be by this time. But if we do win, that means we'd have gone from 9-19 to 19-9 in one year. I guess then I'd be satisfied for the time being."
But it's doubtful that his team would ever suspect it. Also tonight, George Mason (8-18) will seek its first Mason-Dixon Tournament victory ever in a 7 p.m. opener against Mount St. Mary's at Townson State University.
Well-balanced Towson State, the No. 1-ranked Division II team in the nation, is the prohibitive tourney favorite, though the University of Baltimore's 6-6 Ron Smith (26-point average) repeated as the conference's player-of-the-year (announced yesterday.)
One of Washington's best and least known teams, D.C. Teacher's (21-5) will meet Gallaudet at 5 p.m. at Coppin State in the first round of the Potomac Intercollegiate conference Tourney.
Though FCC and Bowie State are also in the PIC, it is Techer's, led by Tyrone Whitlock (21 ppg) and Gary Simmons (19 ppg) that has a sensible chance for an NCAA Division III berth in the March 3-5 playoffs.