When it’s tournament time, NCCU always likes its chances

North Carolina Central senior center Raasean Davis will lead the Eagles to Norfolk for the 2019 MEAC Tournament. NCCU, the No. 3 seed, starts tournament play tonight at 6 PM.
North Carolina Central senior center Raasean Davis will lead the Eagles to Norfolk for the 2019 MEAC Tournament. NCCU, the No. 3 seed, starts tournament play tonight at 6 PM. NCCU Athletics

Raasean Davis can’t even explain it. It’s not his Spidey Sense, but something happens when March approaches.

After N.C. Central’s home finale, a 72-62 win over South Carolina State, the 6-10 Davis said he could almost feel that it was getting close to MEAC tournament time.

“It’s crazy because right now I have chills,” Davis said, stretching out his arms, searching for goose bumps. “I don’t know what it is, but every year around this time I think we come together where we just bond as a unit and we buy in to what coach ask us to do. It always worked out in our favor, hopefully this year will be the same way.”

Since joining the MEAC as a full-time member in 2010, the Eagles have won three MEAC Tournament titles, including the last two. Head coach LeVelle Moton is 12-4 in the MEAC tournament, and is perfect in the opening round (2-0) and the finals (3-0).

In 2018, N.C. Central won four games in Norfolk, Va., and shocked Hampton, 71-63, in the title game. It was the first time the Eagles won the title when they weren’t a top-three seed. Thursday, NCCU (15-15, 10-6) will enter the tournament as the No. 3 seed and will play the winner of the Delaware State-Savannah State game at 6 P.M.

The Eagles ended the regular-season with a 74-52 loss at rival North Carolina A&T. The Aggies, the No. 2 seed, swept NCCU this season.

But Moton, already one of the most successful coaches in the MEAC tournament in just 10 years, knows it’s all about these three days in Norfolk. And even though they ended the season with a loss, this is the time of the year where things should be clicking.

“You want to be going downhill and playing well,” Moton said. “You don’t want to be correcting behavior issues, you don’t want to be correcting synergy, or leadership, or discipline. Those things have to fall in place. It’s showtime now.”

Davis isn’t the only one with a sixth sense around NCCU..

Heading into tournament play Moton can usually feel which teams are going to do well in Norfolk. In fact, only once in his tenure at his alma mater could he tell a team wouldn’t perform well in Norfolk. Basketball karma, he said, wouldn’t allow that team to win a title. They weren’t worthy of winning it all.

“We had so many issues throughout the year and I just felt like we didn’t even deserve to win it,” Moton said. “I don’t want to say which team, but I felt like ‘Let’s just get through this.’ Our karma … you can’t win a championship doing what we did. The game doesn’t reward that. Every other team, I’ve always felt good going into the tournament. Even last year I told the team, if we win the Coppin game we will win the tournament. I told them that.”

The Eagles started off the 2018 tournament with wins over Coppin State and Savannah, then defeated Morgan State in the semis before knocking off No. 1 seed Hampton in the championship.

Savannah and Hampton both defeated N.C. Central in the regular-season last year, but Moton was saving some tricks for the tournament.

“Savannah and Hampton (last year), I did some things in the regular season and I could have adjusted in the middle of the game and I never adjusted,” Moton said. “I told the team in the locker room that I didn’t want to adjust because I knew we were going to see them again, so I adjusted in the tournament. Sometimes you have to bite that bullet.”

So has he saved some tricks for the tournament again this year?

“Yeah. I always do,” Moton said. “Sometimes you just have to fight it and say I know what to do against this team next year and this team next time. You don’t know if it’s going to work, but you have a great idea it’s going to work.”

Around this time of the year, not only are the practices shorter, but so are the film sessions.

Moton has been driving home the same points for months and it should be second nature by March. Larry McKnight doesn’t feel like the team typically plays in cruise control at certain points of the season, but they definitely take it up a notch -- at practice and during games -- this time of the year.

“I wouldn’t say cruise, but maybe at times we are a little lackadaisical,” McKnight said. “Now that’s that it’s tournament time everyone is going twice as hard, everyone knows how much it means.”

The senior from Miami added, “Moton shouldn’t talking about what he was talking about in August. We know what we are supposed to do and we just have to apply it.”

Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.