One more hurdle
Posted March 14
Friday in Greensboro, North Carolina and Syracuse lost quarterfinal games and left town after just one night's stay. Here's hoping they didn't have the same four-night minimum as those of us in the media. Hate to waste all that money. In the grand scheme of things, however, it doesn't really matter all that much because the Tar Heels and Orange are both headed for the NCAA Tournament. Selection Sunday is a formality, apart from the travel arrangements, because what they've done between November 8 and Friday is enough.
Completely different story in Norfolk, Virginia where North Carolina Central is getting ready to play the most important game of their season. At 6:00, at the Scope, LeVelle Moton's Eagles will play Morgan State for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title. Never mind that Central is 27-5 on the season. Forget about the fact that the Eagles have won 19 straight games since January 11 -- a 3-point loss at Florida A & M. Ignore the fact that NCCU has a win at NC State, and very competitive losses at Cincinnati, Maryland and Wichita State, the last of which is 34-0 and headed for a number 1 NCAA Tournament seed on Sunday.
What happened over the last four and half months doesn't matter for Moton's team. "They don't care about our body of work", Moton said about the tournament selection committee. "We have to win our conference tournament, or we know what that means."
Such is life at the lower level of division 1 basketball.
That doesn't mean the Eagles aren't a good basketball team. You don't win 19 straight games in any conference without being good. I'm not arguing that they deserve a spot in the field should they lose to the Bears on Saturday night. And, I'm certainly not going down the rabbit hole of questioning why the smaller conferences choose to reward what you do on one weekend over what you did during an entire season. Those conversations are separate from what the Eagles face a few hours from now.
For Moton's team, the NCAA Tournament began on Wednesday, when they faced Howard. Then, following their 92-46 (yes, you read that score correctly) destruction of the Bison, the NCAA tournament continued with Friday's game against Norfolk State. For the second time in eight days Central took on the Spartans, in their city, and for the second time they had their way. Such is the mission of the Eagles.
It was a similar mission a year ago when Central rolled through the MEAC with a 15-1 record, earning the number 2 seed in the conference tournament. Unfortunately, the road to Selection Sunday had a pothole as their arch rival, the Aggies of N.C. A&T stunned the Eagles in their conference tournament opener sending them home for good.
This year, there's a bit of a safety net. Since the NCAA took over running the National Invitation Tournament a few years ago, they instituted a rule that says regular season champions who fail to win their league's post season tournament will receive automatic bids into the NIT.
With all due respect, no one cares.
Sure, if it doesn't go well against Morgan State, Moton will get his team ready for the consolation tournament. And, because Moton is one of the elite motivators in coaching, he'll have his team ready in the event that such is their fate.
But, Jeremy Ingram, the league's player of the year, deserves to play in the NCAA Tournament. Emanuel Chapman, the senior point guard from Raleigh does as well. But, I don't want to single out players here, because there are a lot of guys, regardless of class who have given their sweat to help the Eagles get to the precipice of their goal.
Ingram is the first Central player in almost 20 years to be named conference player of the year. The last? LeVelle Moton. In 1996, he was the best that the division-2 CIAA had to offer. Five years ago, with his Alma Mater struggling with the shift back up to the highest level of college ball, Moton took over a program that had won a total of 8 games in their first two transitional seasons.
In year one, Moton guided the Eagles to a 7-22 record, a very modest improvement, but a step up nonetheless. Then it was 15 wins. Then 17. Last year's team finished 22-9, but as I pointed out earlier, the end was tainted with the bad taste of a disappointing loss. Saturday, Moton's team stands 40 minutes from realizing a dream. As a player, Moton didn't have the chance to play in the NCAA tournament. Last year, as a coach, he brought the team close, so close.
Close enough that the sting is still fresh in their minds. "You never want to feel that pain", Moton says, "but it's also a great motivator to make sure that you don't leave anything to chance." With back to back wins by a total of 69 points, it certainly seems like nothing is being left to chance.
Now, Central just needs to do it all over again. Because unlike North Carolina and Syracuse, Central's 27-5 body of work is meaningless. The only thing that matters is Saturday night in Norfolk.