Clock has already struck midnight for North Carolina Central, as the Eagles joined a growing list of potential Cinderellas who won’t go dancing this march.
The Eagles were upset by Delaware State, 63-57, in the MEAC Tournament semifinals, snapping a 36-game winning streak within the league. The Eagles were 46-2 in the last three seasons, reaching the program’s first NCAA tournament in 2014.
NC Central joins Iona, Green Bay and most likely Murray State as teams that were bounced early from the conference tournament, dashing hopes of hearing their names called on Selection Sunday.
As the regular season champion, the Eagles will receive an automatic bid to the NIT.
The Hornets overcame a six-point deficit with under five to go to take a four-point lead with less than a minute in regulation. The Eagles were able to force a stop following a Nimrod Hilliard bucket. With 22 seconds to go, Dante Homles got into the lane, but his late-game heroics was thwarted by a charge.
This summer was a busy one for North Carolina Central head coach LeVelle Moton, and all things considered it’s understandable as to why.
In 2013-14, Moton led his alma mater to 28 wins and the MEAC’s regular season and tournament titles, earning the program’s first Division I NCAA tournament appearance. Among the things on Moton’s plate this summer were his receiving the key to the city of Durham, where he grew up, and releasing a book entitled “The Worst Times are the Best Times.”
Yet the task of getting Moton to write the book was a difficult one for former Raleigh News and Observer sportswriter Edward G. Robinson III. Robinson worked hard to convince Moton, who, over the years, has spoken at a number of events around the Triangle area [Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill], to write a book about his life. It took some convincing, but ultimately Robinson’s persistence paid off and the two worked together on the project.
“I told [Robinson] that if I write a book it can’t be about basketball,” Moton told NBCSports.com this week. “If I do it I want to help kids, help and inspire them. I know there are so many kids who grew up the way I grew up, and they need an outlet. They need a voice. And they don’t have the things that I had to help me navigate my way through life.
“I had ‘The Cosby Show.’ I had ‘Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.’ I had ‘Good Times,'” Moton continued. “These kids have ‘Love and Hip Hop.’ There’s nothing to help them make up for the father figure that they may not have. I wrote each chapter, and at the end of the book the only thing was coming up with the title. I went back and found that the worst times were the best times, and that was the title of the book.”
Those experiences not only helped Moton reach the place where he is today, but they also helped as he took on the job of shepherding his alma mater through the transition to Division I back in 2009. It takes a lot to build a program, especially when also having to balance the move from one level of college athletics to another. The level of competition changes, as does the pool from which a coach has to recruit as he looks to build a championship-caliber program. For some, the climb may prove too steep, with the concerns about what resources aren’t available overriding the ability to focus on what is currently accessible.
Moton refused to allow that to be an issue as they went through the process of building the North Carolina Central program.
“I eliminated all excuses,” Moton noted. “Me taking over this program was pretty much synonymous with how I grew up in the housing projects. You know what you don’t have, so there’s no need to worry about what you don’t have. Let’s focus on what we do have and how we can make that better, and the tangible goods we may not be able to afford we’ll make up for it through hard work and dedication and sacrifice.
“Because at the end of the day, someone can have a large arena but when you step between those lines, it’s still every man for himself. And that’s what I’ve tried to get our kids to understand. That’s the culture and that’s the attitude that I’ve tried to get them to have.”
To that point, Moton made note of the fact that players have to earn their gear, so a process that at many other schools is as simple as being measured by the equipment staff and then finding everything you need (and then some) in your locker takes on an entirely different meaning at North Carolina Central. The resulting hunger for success and dedication to the process contributed to North Carolina Central fielding a team in 2013-14 that won the MEAC in truly dominant fashion.
The Eagles were at or near the top of the MEAC in any of the major statistical categories both offensively and defensively, and in going 19-1 against conference competition 14 of their wins were by ten points or more (seven of those wins were by 20 points or more). North Carolina Central’s success was a product of the entire team working together, with senior guard Jeremy Ingram (20.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg) leading the way and winning MEAC Player of the Year honors.
But Ingram and fellow seniors Emanuel “Poobie” Chapman and Alfonzo Houston have all moved on, meaning that new leaders have to step forward as the NCCU program faces it’s next challenge: defending a championship, with the proverbial bull’s eye squarely on their chests. And while Ingram’s numbers may jump out to many when assessing the production lost, this trio can’t be measured solely by the stats especially when considering the fact that Ingram and Chapman were first two players to play four seasons under Moton.
“With Alfonzo we lose unselfishness; if Alfonzo was anywhere else he would have averaged 15 points per game,” Moton said. “He chose to defer to Poobie Chapman and Jeremy Ingram. And when you talk about Jeremy and Pooh, you don’t replace them because they were special. If you could replace them this year, they wouldn’t be special.”
“So you just try to recruit the best that you can and then you ask those guys to be the best ‘them’ that they can be, instead of trying to be the best ‘Jeremy Ingram’ or ‘Poobie Chapman’ that they can be,” Moton continued. “Because there’s no replacing those guys, from a leadership standpoint. They were my first four-year kids, so they saw the good, the bad and the ugly. So they had a different kind of hunger, as opposed to the kids who are coming in on the tail end of what [Jeremy and Poobie] have established.”
Two returnees who are expected to step forward as leaders are senior forwards Karamo Jawara and Jordan Parks. Jawara is one of two returning starters for the Eagles, coming off of a season in which he accounted for 7.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per contest. As for Parks he proved to be an incredibly valuable reserve for North Carolina Central, accounting for 10.1 points and 5.6 rebounds in 19 minutes of action per contest. The 6-foot-7 Parks shot 65.9 percent from the field in 2013-14, leading the nation in field goal percentage.
They’ll be joined by some solid perimeter options, a group that includes Marquette transfer Jamal Ferguson, New Mexico JC transfer Rashaun Madison and Lamar graduate transfer Nimrod Hilliard. Hilliard averaged 11.5 points per game and was an honorable mention All-Southland selection last season. Both Ferguson (who sat out last season) and Madison are expected to compete for playing time. Yet putting a number on what this group can provide isn’t something Moton’s willing to do. His expectations have nothing to do with stats, because if reached the numbers will come.
“Just to step in and play as hard as they can, and be as coachable as they possibly can,” Moton said when asked about his expectations for the newcomers. “The ability is there, obviously; that’s why we recruited them. I just think that if you’re coachable and you commit to the culture of the team, get rid of your bad habits and accept and embrace how we do things here, you’ll be fine.”
It’s a word that’s incredibly popular in sports, as it’s a critical factor in not just reaching the goal of winning a championship but building a program capable of making a run on a consistent basis. To this point North Carolina Central has built, with a clear target in mind, something that was attained a season ago. And while their target won’t change, the circumstances do to a certain extent. Once the hunter, now the Eagles are the hunted, and how they respond will have a significant impact on their fortunes in 2014-15.
“To whom much is given, much is required,” Moton noted. “You’re not sneaking up on teams anymore, and that’s exactly how we have to train and how we must prepare. The thing about success is you have to maintain that and you have to sustain that, and that’s really more difficult than trying to climb to the top of that mountain.”
Last season LeVelle Moton led his alma mater, North Carolina Central, to its first MEAC title and NCAA tournament appearance in what was a historic run. The Eagles rolled to a 16-1 record in regular season play, and the way in which North Carolina Central dominated their conference opponents on both ends of the floor has seldom been seen in the history of the MEAC. The question now: what will North Carolina Central do for an encore? The Eagles will have to account for the loss of leading scorer and MEAC Player of the Year Jeremy Ingram, who averaged 20.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per contest as a senior.
The good news for North Carolina Central is that their top three front court players, led by senior Jordan Parks (10.1 ppg, 5.6rpg), are back in Durham and they’ll have 6-foot-11 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi transfer Nate Maxey as well. If the Eagles can get solid production from their perimeter options, which includes Lamar transfer Nimrod Hilliard and Colby CC transfer Jeremiah Ingram, North Carolina Central will be more than capable of repeating as MEAC champions.
However the Eagles aren’t the favorites in the MEAC entering the 2014-15 season. That label belongs to a Hampton squad that won 13 league games a season ago.
Edward Joyner Jr.’s Pirates will be led by sophomore guard Deron Powers, who averaged 11.8 points and 4.0 assists per game as a freshman. Four of Hampton’s top five scorers return but that one loss is a big one, as Du’Vaughn Maxwell (14.9, 7.3 rpg, 3.0 rpg) was the MEAC Defensive Player of the Year last season. In order to account for the loss of Maxwell, Hampton will need front court returnees such as senior Emmanuel Okoroba and junior Jervon Pressley, to step forward on what will likely be a perimeter-oriented team given the lack of depth inside.
In Robert Jones’ first season at the helm Norfolk State finished tied for third in the MEAC with an 11-5 league record, and the Spartans will look to improve on that despite losing their top three scorers. Senior point guard Jamel Fuentes returns, and multiple transfers including Jeff Short (Fordham) and Malik Thomas (Boston University) have prior experience at the Division I level. Delaware State, which returns two of its top three scorers led by forward Tyshawn Bell and center Kendall Gray, will look to rebound from a disappointing 2013-14 and Morgan State has hopes of taking the next step after falling in each of the last two MEAC tournament title games.
North Carolina Central will be seen as the favorites, but it will be difficult for the Eagles to put together a title run as dominant as last season’s effort due in part to the strength of the challengers.
PRESEASON MEAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kendall Gray, Delaware State
After having a clear-cut winner last season (Ingram) there will be some suspense when it comes to MEAC Player of the Year in 2014-15. Gray averaged 11.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game as a junior, and he’ll be asked to lead the way for a team capable of rebounding from last year’s 5-11 conference mark.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-MEAC TEAM:
James Daniel, Howard: Daniel was the MEAC’s best freshman last season, scoring 21.7 points per game for the Bison.
Deron Powers, Hampton: Powers accounted for 11.8 points and 4.0 assists per game last season.
Jordan Parks, North Carolina Central: Parks didn’t make a single start last season, but he still managed to account for 10.1 points and 5.6 rebounds in 19 minutes of action per game.
Nimrod Hilliard, North Carolina Central: The honorable mention All-Southland selection at Lamar last season can help the Eagles account for Jeremy Ingram’s departure offensively.
2. North Carolina Central
3. Norfolk State
4. Delaware State
5. Morgan State
6. Coppin State
8. Savannah State
10. North Carolina A&T
11. Maryland-Eastern Shore
12. South Carolina State
13. Florida A&M