Will the Hornets buzz the league again?

General cluster
MEACLower-level Division I conferences generally fall into one of two categories.

There are the predictable ones – does anyone other than Penn or Princeton ever win the Ivy League? – and there are the free-for-alls.

The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference certainly falls into the latter category.

Last season was typical MEAC basketball. Delaware State won the regular-season title despite four conference losses. Hampton and Coppin State were only a game back at 13-5. Two games further back were South Carolina State, Norfolk State and Morgan State at 11-7.

The conference tournament was just as jumbled, as the championship game between Delaware State and Hampton was decided on a dramatic eight-foot putback with seconds to play.

Things probably aren't going to be much different this season.

While the league seems to live near the bottom of the RPI, there is a significant amount of parity. A favorite? That's almost impossible to determine right now.

Hampton, Coppin State and Delaware State certainly appear the most likely candidates. That's because each of the three teams return significant pieces from a year ago, but all three have holes to fill as well.

Hampton, which ended last season by winning 14 of 17 games before falling to Delaware State in the MEAC title game, might have the league's most intriguing prospect in Bruce Brown. At 6-foot-11 and 280 pounds, Brown is a true center – a rarity in a low-major league. His development as a junior – when he averaged 14.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 66.2 percent from the floor – was much of the reason the Pirates improved.

"We got the ball into Bruce Brown and he got a lot of confidence," said Pirates coach Bobby Collins, who was an assistant under Steve Merfeld when Hampton upset Iowa State in the NCAA tournament. "He led the nation in field goal percentage a lot of the year. He needs to get more touches."

The question for Hampton is going to be on the perimeter. Collins is optimistic that a recruiting class that features junior college transfer Matthew Williams and high schoolers DeMario Mattox and Michael Laney will help fill holes. Jaz Cowen, a transfer from George Washington, will be eligible at the semester break.

While Hampton has the best big man in Brown, Coppin State has a good trio returning. Wing Nicholas King was first-team MEAC, Raheem Scott was a second-team selection and Darryl Proctor was the league's freshman of the year. The three combined to average 35.8 points, 16.6 rebounds and five assists per game. All told, Coppin State returns its five top scorers and six of its top seven from last season.

"They'll be talented again," Collins said. "Fang Mitchell always has his team ready. They'll be tough to beat."

Delaware State – which gave Duke fits in the first half of its NCAA tournament game – loses two of its top three scorers, but the Hornets should still be very athletic. Like Hampton, Delaware State ended last season on a roll, winning 15 of 17 games to reach the NCAA Tournament.

Collins thinks the quality of play in the MEAC is getting better. He realizes the league's limitations, but thinks it can reach a stage where the winner doesn't have to sweat out Selection Sunday, wondering if it's going to be sent to the play-in game.

"We want to build a program here," Collins said. "We want to make it a mid-major and be a 13- or 14-seed."

Summer indicators
Good sign: The best thing for the MEAC is that there are signs of stability among the league's coaches. Delaware State coach Greg Jackson has been offered a contract extension through 2011. Hampton kept Collins in large part because of his team's strong finish. Howard was the only job that turned over this offseason. While MEAC jobs will still likely be stepping-stone jobs for most, there is at least an appearance that the schools are trying to keep their coaches and build programs.

Red flag: November and December is still more about fundraising than winning games. That means almost every MEAC team plays more than their share of guarantee games against major conference opponents. It's a vicious cycle as the schools need the money to pay for other sports on campus, but it leads too often to loss after loss for the basketball teams. Last season, Florida A&M didn't play a home game until the first week of January, losing to Michigan State, Florida, Oklahoma and Mississippi State in the process. Bethune-Cookman played only two of its first 15 games last season at home.

The result is that the MEAC schools make money in exchange for losses. The losses, however, contribute to the league's poor RPI and that leads to poor seeding. Last season, the MEAC was ahead of only the SWAC in the RPI. North Carolina A&T finished the season at No. 312, Howard was No. 322 and Maryland-Eastern Shore was dead last at No. 330.

Worth watching: Can Gil Jackson get Howard going in the right direction? The long-time assistant to Fran Dunphy at Pennsylvania, Jackson takes over a program that has been less-than-competitive to say the least. The Bison finished last season on a 17-game losing streak and were the only team to lose to Longwood.

Relax, coach Collins – the MEAC isn't in the play-in game, according to our resident Bracketologist, Joe Lunardi.

The bad news for Hampton? It's Coppin State which is projected to land as a 16-seed, with Duke once again as the conference's opponent.

2006 Bracketology


* – NCAA Tournament

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.