Overshadowed for years in its own crowded area code, N.C. Central is ready for its debut on college basketball’s biggest stage.
In just their third season as a full Division I member, the Eagles have joined Triangle neighbors Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State in the NCAA Tournament.
Coach LeVelle Moton said that “hopefully it means that we belong.”
No. 14 seed N.C. Central (28-5) brings a 20-game winning streak into its NCAA opener Friday night against third-seeded Iowa State in San Antonio in the second round of the East Regional.
Senior point guard Emanuel Chapman called it “surreal to be mentioned in the same breath” as those programs because, “we get lost in the shuffle playing in the same area of these great schools.”
These Eagles, who received full Division I membership in the summer of 2011, have done their part to stand out – most notably by knocking off one of their neighbors.
N.C. Central’s 10-point overtime win against N.C. State in November certainly gained the locals’ attention, but even that didn’t fully make believers out of the Eagles.
According to Chapman, what did it for the Eagles was a 63-60 loss to Florida A&M on Jan. 11.
“We kind of let it slip through our fingers,” Chapman said. “We realized that we were a good team ... but we had to be on our Ps and Qs every night. That’s the game that made us our best this year.”
With a roster of players who started their college careers elsewhere, Central hasn’t been beaten since.
Now they want to join Coppin State, Hampton and Norfolk State as MEAC schools to pull significant upsets in the NCAA Tournament – though each of those schools did it as No. 15 seeds.
Ten of their players are transfers – either from junior colleges or other Division I schools – including forward Jay Copeland (Ball State) and guard Reggie Groves (Canisius).
“We can’t do the status quo,” Moton said. “We can’t do what Duke does. ... We have to have a creative method of ascending our program.”
Central’s few four-year players have been key – especially MEAC player of the year Jeremy Ingram, a Charlotte native who scored 20 points 18 times with four 30-point performances, including 37 against Wichita State.
Chapman averages 6.3 assists, which ranks eighth nationally. He works out in the offseason with fellow Raleigh natives John Wall of the Washington Wizards, Dez Wells of Maryland and Rodney Purvis of Connecticut, and says “there isn’t a lot that separates us.
“And that goes for a lot of the guys on the team, and that’s the chip we play with on our shoulder,” he added.
It’s easy to be overlooked when sharing real estate with three programs that have combined to win 11 NCAA tournaments and boast of Hall of Fame coaches.
But the Eagles have those things, too.
Four decades before N.C. Central won the Division II title in 1989, the Eagles were coached by John McLendon – a James Naismith disciple who’s credited for creating the fast break and full-court zone press, but whose most significant contribution to the sport might have been organizing a game that officially never took place.
In 1944, McLendon’s team at what then was called the North Carolina College for Negroes was denied a spot in the national postseason tournaments because black colleges weren’t allowed to play in them. With mixed-race games illegal at the time in the Jim Crow South, McLendon set up a game against an intramural team from Duke inside a locked, empty gym.
The Eagles won, 88-44, in what became known as the “Secret Game” because no outsiders knew about it until the Hall of Famer finally told the story shortly before his death in 1999.
“I’m more just like a caretaker of the program,” Moton said, “because the legacy has already been created.”