Anthony Tarke and his newest coach, Coppin State’s Juan Dixon, quickly found common ground.
Tarke, a product of Gaithersburg, Md., previously played at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (2016-2018) and Texas El-Paso (2018-2020) before landing at Coppin. He and Dixon both thought Tarke’s talents could take him far in the game of basketball.
So, after traveling far and wide, Tarke came back closer to home to help local legend Dixon turn the Eagles’ fortunes and try to follow Dixon’s path to the NBA. They both feel fortunate to have each other as the precarious 2020-21 season gets rolling.
“Coach Juan had a plan for me and had a vision for me to show off what I can do,” said Tarke, a grad transfer leading the team in scoring (17.3 points per game), rebounds (7.8) and steals (3.0) through six contests. “He believed in me and all my abilities. He said he believes I’m an NBA player, that I fit the mold. He played in the league and under his tutelage and with my ability, it can all come together.”
“We’re very fortunate to have A.T. in our family,” Dixon added. “In the recruiting process we worked extremely hard as a staff to get Anthony Tarke here. He’s a guy that’s a game-changer, just with his freakish athleticism, his size, his guard-like skills, and right now he’s playing with a lot of confidence.”
Dixon hopes some of that confidence — Tarke was all-league in the Atlantic Sun Conference at NJIT — rubs off on the Eagles. Coppin began 1-5 against a demanding schedule, but the potential for the Eagles, who haven’t posted a winning record since 2010-11, to take wing is still apparent.
That’s Tarke’s take, too, and he did something to show it, pumping in 33 points in Coppin’s first win, 85-80 against visiting UNC Greensboro Dec. 10. The 6-foot-6 Tarke, a high-jumping forward with guard skills, also had 10 rebounds, hit 11 of 13 shots and had eight assists.
The Eagles are starting to come together. Coppin returned two preseason all-conference picks in senior forward DeJuan Clayton from Bowie, Md., and point guard Koby Thomas from Philadelphia. If they get some help in the paint from some bigs — 6-foot-7 junior Justin Steers hasn’t played this year because of injury and 6-foot-7 shot-blocker Bryce Hunt is still sorting through an eligibility issue — there’s a high ceiling in Coppin’s PEC Arena this year.
“I love my guys, DeJuan and Koby, these guys they want to win,” Tarke said. “They’re both very gifted players and we’re trying to change the mentality around here. The mindset is to be like a three-headed monster.”
Tarke and his team turned heads in a hard-fought 81-71 loss at Duke Nov. 28 to open the season. Tarke’s 22 points, nine rebounds, five steals and two blocks helped Coppin outscore the then-No. 9 Blue Devils, 43-36, in the second half. Then, as if to shut down doubters, Tarke poured in another 22 points at George Washington Dec. 5 and earned MEAC Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors.
“I felt like a lot of people were watching to see how I would do after sitting out, really, two years,” said Tarke, who sat out as a transfer in 2018-19 and then just sat on the bench too much at UTEP last year. “Even for me, not knowing how I would do, it was exciting, thrown right in the fire against the No. 9 team. Coach believed in me and it freed my mind. A lot of people were shocked, ‘This is the same kid from UTEP?’”
Dixon has a lot of pieces to put together under trying circumstances this season, but he knows Tarke can take the team places. In the process, Tarke will inch up NBA draft boards and leave Coppin State a better program.
“He’s a very competitive young man,” said Dixon, who would be the first to admire that particular trait. “We’re very fortunate to have an opportunity to coach him. We’re just going to continue to help him get better. A.T. has a lot of experience in college basketball and to get a grad transfer like that will hopefully propel us to land more guys like that.”
Tarke was a Washington Post All-Met selection at Gaithersburg High School in 2014-15, averaging 26.3 points. Yet Tarke didn’t have a lot of college offers, committing to Division II University of Charleston (W.Va) early. His AAU coach, Arty Jones, who has since passed away, saw things differently, though.
“He told me there was no difference between playing against West Virginia or playing against Shepherd [University],” Tarke recalled. “He said I could compete anywhere. So that’s why I went to prep school. He made me play AAU my senior year after I already signed and then people saw me play.”
Tarke would land at Coastal Academy, now Covenant College Prep, in Belmar, N.J., where he was coveted by nearby NJIT, and ultimately signed with the Highlanders. He was a human highlight there, averaging 9.9 points and 4.7 rebounds to earn A-Sun All-Freshman honors. He was first-team all-conference the following season, racking up 15.7 points and 6.2 rebounds, including a 27-point, nine-rebound game at Kennesaw State.
Tarke played through a knee injury, and ultimately, felt he could play on a still larger stage. UTEP coaches thought so, too.
“Leaving New Jersey, I had never been recruited the way I was then,” he said. “It was kind of overwhelming.”
Chalk it up as another learning experience, which is what college, or in this case, colleges, are all about. Tarke felt he may have rushed his decision to venture nearly 2,000 miles from his home to El Paso. Miners assistant Brian Burton was his biggest advocate, but when coaching staff changes came and Tarke couldn’t shake nagging injuries or get sufficient playing time, he finished up his degree and hit the road again.
He played 14 games, started twice and averaged 2.6 points and 4.0 rebounds in 2019-20. Again, Tarke had a lot of options but Coppin State became intriguing because the Eagles were recruiting Nendah, Tarke’s younger brother. Nendah, by the way, had 20 points in Coppin’s first win.
“It definitely played into it,” Tarke said. “I’ve always wanted to play with him, and I know the type of chemistry we’ve had on the floor in the past. Him making that move [to commit first] and Coach Juan’s belief, it was like, ‘OK, you’ve earned my trust.’”
Tarke sees Nendah going through familiar freshman growing pains, perhaps exacerbated by Dixon’s demanding doctrines on defense where the Eagles as a team are a work in progress.
“We’re not as sound, not as disciplined enough to dictate the way he wants us to,” said Tarke, sounding like a guy in his fifth year of college basketball. “Once we’ve honed in and our shots start falling, I think we’re going to get on a nice little run.”
Part of that may hinge on getting those big men in the lineup. Right now, Tarke is playing inside because there aren’t a lot of other options.
“I think my strength is being able to guard any position, from point guard to center,” he said. “And I can drive the basketball and find open teammates, get the ball to certain places. When I’m playing well and have a rhythm, it’s hard to stop me.”
That’s apparent through a lot of miles and now three schools.
“It has been a good experience,” he said, looking back and thinking about his future all at the same time.
Photo Credit: Troy Queen/Coppin State Athletics