Long gone are the days when N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton could call a timeout and tell Jeremy Ingram to go get a bucket and more often that not Ingram would.
No longer can he tell Emanuel “Poobie” Chapman to create an open shot for another player. He too often did that.
And Moton is quick to say he may never get that again at N.C. Central.
“That kid was rare,” Moton said of Ingram. “Y’all saw him when the lights were on, but it was even more special to see him in here when no one was in the stands.”
Those players, who in 2014 led N.C. Central to its first Division I NCAA tournament berth in school history, have since graduated. This will be the second season without them, and the Eagles are trying to figure out a way to get back to the postseason.
Only two players on this year’s team – Dante Holmes and Jay Copeland – and Moton remember what it was like.
The Eagles finished 25-8 last season and went undefeated in their conference schedule. But for mid-majors like N.C. Central, it’s win your conference tournament or go home.
Close games against the league’s top teams revealed their weaknesses down low. They lost in a MEAC semifinal to Delaware State, a team that nearly beat them at home during the regular season, if not for two missed free throws in the final seconds of the game.
The Eagles return only one starter, redshirt senior Holmes, from last year’s team. The senior guard averaged 10.4 points and led the team in steals per game (1.3) his junior season.
Copeland, a 6-foot-7 sixth-year senior who tore his ACL before the beginning of last season and was granted a medical redshirt, will also return.
The big-bodied forward played a key role on the 2013-14 team that made the second round of the NCAA tournament. He led the team in rebounds with 5.9 per game.
Copeland has lost about 20 pounds, down from 265 two years ago, and he said he now feels faster.
However, he also realizes he has to get back in the flow of playing a real game and getting over the mental aspect of his knee injury.
“I’m in the best shape now than I have been in any years of my college career,” Copeland said. “So that’s a good thing. But not only is it a physical game but it’s a mental game as well.
“So the physical, I’m there. I’m looking in the mirror like ‘boy you got cut. The abs are coming in.’ But then mentally, I know what to expect and I know what the coaches are going to ask of us.”
His strength in the post will be key for an Eagles’ team that lacked it last season.
Last season’s best player, then-senior Jordan Parks, a 6-foot-7 200-pound forward, played the tallest position. He held his own most of the time with his technique in boxing out, but the Eagles still struggled.
What N.C. Central lacks in a pure scorer, they will have to do collectively. Moton’s philosophy has been to play great defense, create turnovers and get out in a fast break.
They’ve had great point guards the past few years to lead those breaks.
Moton said he hopes he can get that from Florida Gulf Coast transfer and junior guard Dajuan Graf. Graf was a freshman on the FGC team that made a run to the Sweet Sixteen of the 2013 NCAA tournament.
But can Graf lead the way?
“It remains to be seen,” Moton said. “Because he’s unproven. (But) he’s improved immensely for the last two months.
Moton said the 6-foot, 185-pound Graf came into the season out of shape. Graf too has since lost weight – 18 pounds, now down to 167.
“But he needs to bring some leadership to the table,” Moton said. “He has a tendency to be lazy at times and I jump on him all the time. He was playing the game like he was a fat person, and I said ‘you got to stop doing that.’ And I challenged him.”
Graf is confident he can answer the call.
“I think I’m a smart point guard, I can be a leader out there on the floor and I can just lead my team to victory,” he said. “I think we had two good point guards two years before and I can bring their abilities and more.”
Adding to that depth at guard is junior A.J. Lynch and freshman C.J. Wiggins. Wiggins is one of the few recruits out of high school Moton has landed in recent years.
Mid-majors like N.C. Central tend to recruit junior college players to get ahead of the curve. Those players tend to be more prepared, while quality freshman are harder to recruit.
Moton said Wiggins is the most athletic point guard he’s ever coached, but he still has a ways to go.
N.C. Central will add junior guard Patrick Cole in December when he becomes eligible after transferring last year.
Picked to finish first in the MEAC for the third year in a row, N.C. Central hopes they can make that happen.
When asked if his team was prepared for the beginning of the season, Moton said, “We’re going to be a ways away, and first semester we’re going to fight ourselves through it.”
“And once Pat (Cole) comes in December, that will help out tremendously and I can toy with some different lineups,” he said. “But I’m interested in getting to know them, because the reality is I don’t know.”