N.C. Central’s past two months have been as close to perfect as it can be in mid-major basketball.
The Eagles have won 17 straight times. They have the MEAC Player of the Year and the MEAC Coach of the Year. They’re first in the MEAC in scoring offense, scoring defense, assists and turnover margin. They ran away with the regular season championship, and they are projected to earn the conference’s bid to the NCAA Tournament. That’s what the tape shows.
Unless that tape is being shown by N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton. When his team breaks down film, he has a very specific agenda in mind, intent on keeping a very specific identity ingrained in the Eagles.
“The film session is not a highlight film. It’s not a dunk contest. We might give you one good clip and then it’s 23 bad clips,” Moton said. “It’s just who we are.”
N.C. Central (25-5) is in the midst of its best season in 21 years, and by far its best since it moved up to Division I for the 2007-08 season. The Eagles need three wins, beginning with the MEAC Tournament quarterfinals game at 6 p.m. today, to earn their first ever spot in the D-I NCAA Tournament.
Moton has built this pop-up mid-major power from the bottom of Division I, using a handful of players nobody else wanted while playing a system few teams want to play, and even fewer implement successfully.
The Eagles are guard-oriented but built on defense. They have several players with the ability to average 15 points, but N.C. Central isn’t a team where everybody has thoughts of chucking 20 shots.
The Eagles are holding opponents to 37.8 percent shooting, which is ranked fifth in the NCAA.
It starts from there. There are roles, and they are respected.
“Everybody bought into their roles to make our team better, not necessarily to make their stats better,” senior guard Alfonzo Houston said. “Everybody has an assignment, and when everybody does that assignment, the team gets better.”
The Eagles’ 17 straight wins have rekindled memories of a dominant past. The Eagles won the Division II national championship in 1989 and had some excellent teams in the mid 1990s with Moton, a former MEAC Player of the Year while with the Eagles.
But Division I was a struggle. N.C. Central won 15 games in its first three years in the top classification, including back-to-back four-win seasons in its first two years.
N.C. Central has become the MEAC’s power with overlooked players. Houston came from a junior college in Missouri. Guard Emanuel Chapman, an all-MEAC selection this season, didn’t have another scholarship offer besides N.C. Central. N.C. Central also made the only offer to Jeremy Ingram, who was named the conference’s player of the year this year.
“I couldn’t really tell you how that happened,” said Ingram, who is averaging 20.2 points per game this season. “I didn’t really understand it. I was the same size, the same weight as I am now in high school. But I guess everything happens for a reason.”
The Eagles also have potential beyond this week, should they survive. In the past 10 years, five MEAC champions were forced to play in the 16-seed play-in game. The Eagles are projected as No. 15 who will play Kansas in the second round.
N.C. Central hung with Wichita State, a surefire No. 1 seed, and challenged tournament hopeful Maryland.
The Eagles also went into Raleigh and beat N.C. State, a game that further showed the Eagles can punch above their weight.
“That made us believe even more,” Ingram said. “We felt like we could win all along, but to actually go out there and do it just made us believe even more.”
But at the mid-major level, even the powers live a fragile existence. The winning streak, the memorable regular season and the nearly perfect MEAC slate would be undercut by a single bad game in the MEAC Tournament.
Should the Eagles lose to another MEAC team – many of which they already have beaten twice – they will watch the NCAA Tournament with the rest of the United States.
Such is life in a one-bid conference.
“It’s a shame it boils down to that, but that’s the harsh reality of the conference that we’re affiliated with, the MEAC,” Moton said. “I just don’t agree with the fact that people throw away the five-month body of work to produce for three days in March, but it’s the reality, and we’re going to approach it as such.”
So it will take one nervous week for the Eagles to re-prove they are the best team in the league.
The program has dreamed of simply taking a shot in the NCAA Tournament since its move to Division I, and that chance is closer than it ever has been for the school. All of the Eagles who feel overlooked by bigger schools want thier one opportunity on the big court.
Houston has wanted that all his life. He saw his high school teammate and close friend, Reggie Keely, live the mid-major dream at Ohio, a center on the Bobcats teams that won three tournament games in three years.
He – and his school with him – simply wants that chance.
“To play at that type of level, that (has) always been a dream of mine, to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Houston said. “But you can’t do it without adversity. So far, we’re still rolling, and if we keep playing like we have been, can’t nothing stop us.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com