The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference is finally on the verge of discarding final traces of a dual personality that has plagued its recent basketball fortunes.
Morgan State, North Carolina Central and Maryland-Eastern Shore are set to petition the NCAA for Division I status this spring. If they are accepted -- as they expect -- the entire MEAC would be in the same division for the first time in three years.
That would, if nothing else, make postseason planning easier for the conference basketball champion. In the past, if a Division II squad won the postseason tournament, it would compete in the NCAA Division II playoffs. But if a Division I team emerged the winner, it could only wait for an at-large bid to the Division I tournament -- which never came -- or a greeting from the National Invitation Tournament -- which seldom arrived.
Upping its status will not necessarily guarantee the MEAC an invitation to the NCAA tournament until conference members start proving themselves against national competition.
Marty Blake, who runs a scouting service for several National Basketball Association teams, explained the MEAC dilemma.
"Since schools like Delaware State and South Carolina State are predominantly black, they don't get a chance to play against the top-flight teams -- the well-known schools have everything to lose in that situation. Instead of getting knocked off by a well-known power, the MEAC schools are going to lose to some teams nobody ever heard of; that hurts them even more. The only way a North Carolina A&T can get a game is to go to Syracuse."
A&T, Howard's opponent Saturday in an 8 p.m. game at Burr Gymnasium, is unbeaten in nine conference games this season. But the Aggies are 5-6 outside the MEAC, with a 25-point loss to seventh-ranked Syracuse, a 19-point setback to No. 2 Indiana State and a 15-point beating at the hands of Maine.
All those losses were on the road -- a familiar situation to Howard Coach A.B. Williamson. The Bison record this season shows losses to Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Illinois State on the road; in previous seasons the Bison suffered routs at North Carolina and Southern California.
But Howard gets a chance to get even next season by hosting UW-Milwaukee, Illinois State, Colgate and Jacksonville State.
"I don't schedule them anymore unless I can get them on a home-and-home basis," said Williamson.
"We've got to start beating outside teams to make the conference more impressive," said Ken Free, the MEAC's president. "If we meet that criterion, we stand a very good chance of getting an automatic bid.
"We're getting better, we have been hiring better coaches and becoming more dedicated to bringing in talent. These coaches seem better able to discipline the players, to cut down on their playground tendencies. They're bringing in players they can control and are consequently producing teams that show more of a system.
"When the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association split, and the MEAC was formed (1971), the MEAC emphasized football and the CIAA basketball. Now the two conferences are just about equal in basketball."
Blake was not excited about the pro prospects of any of the MEAC seniors but added that the only two seniors in the country who did impress him were Indiana State's Larry Bird and San Francisco's Bill Cartwright.
Blake did say Bison center Dorian Dent would be drafted, as would A&T forward James Sparrow. Sparrow, whose original freshman class graduated last spring, was picked in the fifth round by Indiana. But, he chose to play one more year.
"The biggest problem the black schools have is their recruiting budget," said Blake. "The money for scouting trips, plane rides for campus visits, extra assistant coaches for scouting, etc., is just not there."
Despite a fine recruiting year by Williamson, the Howard coach lost potential Bison in the recruiting finals to Marquette, Wake Forest, Bradley and Villanova.