As North Carolina Central starts the 2019 calendar year 1-0 in MEAC play after Saturday’s 68-59 win over Bethune-Cookman, head coach LeVelle Moton is still tinkering with his lineups.
The Eagles (6-9, 1-0) have played 15 games and have used four different starting lineups. Saturday’s starting five against the Wildcats was center Raasean Davis, forward Zacarry Douglas and guards Larry McKnight Jr., Julian Walters and Randy Miller Jr.
Saturday’s win was the third time this season that particular five started together, and the first time this season that same five has started consecutive games.
Moton’s roster, with four returning starters from last season’s NCAA tournament team, goes 10, sometimes 11 deep, with nine players averaging double-digit minutes. Two of his preseason All-MEAC honorees -- Jordan Perkins and Reggie Gardner Jr. -- have come off the bench most of the year, proving how much depth and competition there has been in practice.
McKnight, Davis and Douglas -- all seniors - are the only players to start every game this season.
Perkins, who started 25 games as a rookie, started the first two games of the year and has been out of the starting lineup since November. Gardner, who started all 35 games last season as a true freshman, has yet to start a game during as a sophomore.
Both played starters’ minutes (24 minutes apiece) in the win over Bethune-Cookman and contributed, each scoring 12 points. But the emergence of Rashann London, Walters and Miller have made things a little bit crowded in the back court, combined with Moton feeling a need to send a message to his second year players who shot to fame after four successful days in March.
“Sometimes when you are winning at such a young age you can forget the mishaps that you had while building that body of work and just think about those three or four days of greatness that you had in March,” Moton said. “The reality is we were a solid team throughout the year last year, we weren’t a great team, and they came back with the attitude that they were great. We brought in some more guards and they started competing to get their spot and they didn’t initially compete like that.”
Moton had a candid conversation with the duo and informed them they wouldn’t play as many minutes until their attitudes change and they bought in.
“They buy in now and that’s what you saw and it’s good. We have a lot of depth and each night it’s going to be a different man that’s capable of stepping up and executing,” Moton said. “The great thing is we have two starters coming off the bench so they can give us some productive minutes.”
Moton has a saying when it comes to the starting spots -- may the best man win. That motto got Gardner and Perkins into the lineup last year, but also has opened the door for Miller, a transfer from Moberly Area Community College, and Walters, a transfer from Alabama A&M. Miller has taken advantage the most, averaging 11.7 points per game, good enough for second on the team behind Davis (16.1).
“I don’t care who you are -- walk on, three year starter, I don’t have any seniority,” Moton said. “I’m going to play the best five guys, period, because this is my livelihood and that’s what this university deserves.”
DAVIS COMING ALONG
Davis, the 6-9 center from Chicago, is one of the top big men in the MEAC, and was voted preseason all-conference.
In the win over the Wildcats, Davis recorded his fifth double-double this season and the 16th of his career. The double-double machine has four 20-point games this season and led the Eagles in scoring 11 times, including his 16 on Saturday. And he did a lot of damage despite not getting going until the second half, which is scary for future MEAC opponents.
Against the Wildcats he didn’t make his first field goal until the 1:47 mark of the first half, a powerful dunk off an assist from Perkins, just his second attempt from the field in the opening 20 minutes. He finished the game 7-of-7 from the field and now has 50 points in the last two games.
Moton said Davis has to understand that in conference play, he’s not going to get a lot of one-on-one match ups that he saw during the non-conference schedule.
“What he has to understand is that conference play is a new beginning,” Moton said. “Not to take anything away from high majors, but they aren’t going to do crafty designing and all that because they feel like man-to-man, their man is better than yours. So he gets one on one opportunities. In conference they aren’t going to allow you to catch the ball and go one on one. He has to set screens and dive to the rim, get out in transition, get offensive rebounds. That’s a lot where it’s coming from now.”
Moton said the best lineup -- on that night -- was a combination of Davis, McKnight, Gardner, Perkins and Jibri Blount, who combined for 57 points in the win over the Wildcats.
That was the unit that played most of minutes in the first half when NCCU took the lead for good. On other nights, it’s Walters or Douglas. Again, Moton has interchangeable parts this season. But that particular group has a certain quality Moton likes.
“Anytime you have Jibri, Jordan and Larry out there, they are really solid defenders,” Moton said. “I don’t think there is ever a case with five great defenders on the floor, but if you can get three out there it’s kind of infectious to the other guys. I think that’s the reason why.”
Davis is third in the league in blocked shots (1.1 per game) and in the top 15 in steals. In two seasons Perkins has proven to be a solid on-ball defender, while Blount, who has only played five games, has shown his value all over the place, collecting seven steals and six blocks in his limited time with the team. He drew a charges against the Wildcats that drew praise from his coach.
“That toughness that he has,” Moton said. “He only had five points but they were huge. That charge that he took for us, those were huge splash plays and he’s only going to get better with time. He didn’t play first semester, but he’s getting his feet up under him and he’s doing everything that I ask him to do.”