It took awhile to gel, according to N.C. Central men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton. Simple as that.
During the preseason his Eagles showed flashes on the defensive end of the floor, but played nowhere up to their potential. Part of that, according to the veteran coach, was most of the guys, a mix of transfers who sat out last year, had never played together. The second part was that the defensive system Moton prefers is a complicated one.
It just so happened it all came together at the right time. The Eagles (15-6, 6-1 MEAC) are on a six-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s showdown with Morgan State (10-11, 7-1), which sits one spot above NCCU in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference standings.
In its six league wins, N.C. Central, which leads the MEAC in points per game, has also gotten it done defensively, winning their league games by an average of 11 points, best in the MEAC. Aside from an eight-point win over Delaware State on Monday night, they haven’t even been that close.
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Wins over Maryland Eastern Shore (69-52) and Howard (74-39) were over by halftime. Road wins over Norfolk State and Hampton were nail-biters until the second half when the Eagles put the clamps on in crunch time. Even though it can score in bunches, N.C. Central hangs its hat on keeping the other team off the boards. And even though Moton doesn’t have one shutdown guy, he has five guys on the floor who play defense as a collective unit.
“Our system revolves around five guys working as one,” Moton said, “and helping one another. Just from watching clips as a coaching staff, we can see the growth, we can see the evolution.”
The guys don’t have “dead feet” anymore, as Moton put it. They are active, always talking, helping on screens and on the weak side of the floor.
“We’re there for one another,” Moton said. “That’s what’s most important. You have to have five guys out there connected at the hip and on one accord.”
The Eagles boast the No. 1 scoring defense in the league, holding teams to just 62.7 points per game. Opponents shoot an average of 39 percent from the floor against N.C. Central, also tops in the MEAC. For a stretch of four consecutive games, the Eagles held their conference opponent to their lowest point total in league play.
Guys who light it up in other MEAC games go missing against N.C. Central. For example, Howard freshman guard Charles Williams and leading scorer James Miller combined for 56 points at N.C. A&T two days before playing the Eagles. Williams went 3-for-12 from the field against N.C. Central while Miller went scoreless. That, Moton said, comes from having a mindset of “this guy is not getting his average today.”
Whenever a team shoots, Moton wants it to be a contested shot. When they watch film, he likes to point out the defensive mistakes to his team. To the average observer, a defensive mistake might just be an opponent shooting a wide-open shot. To Moton a mistake is not making contact, or tagging, with the screener or leaving a man alone in the corner when the ball is on the other side of the floor. These things are happening less and less each week. Moton’s best on-ball defender is guard Rashaun Madison (fourth in steals in MEAC), but the best overall defender is Dajuan Graf, who always does the little things, defensively, when film is reviewed.
“It’s rare that he makes mistakes,” Moton said. “He’s really solid on the defensive end of the floor, on and off the ball.”
In the rare situations that Graf or Madison get beat by their man, backline enforcers Kyle Benton and Will Ransom (1.2 bpg) are there waiting. Under Moton, the Eagles are 44-10 when they hold opponents between 50-59 points, something they have done five times in six league wins.
“We just get after it and compete,” Moton said. “It’s 10 percent principal, and it’s 90 percent heart. We can talk about talking (on defense) and sliding your feet and all that, but it’s about imposing your will.”