N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton understands that an undefeated conference record alone won’t earn his team a spot in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
For schools in low-major conferences such as the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, the only hope for an NCAA tournament berth is a conference tournament championship. One loss, and that dream is over.
Moton said that aspect of it concerns him slightly.
“I have mixed emotions on it,” he said. “My personal thoughts is that the winner of the regular season should be awarded, because in the tournament anything can happen. And I think the purpose of the tournament is to send your best team.”
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And N.C. Central certainly has been the best team in the conference for the second straight season.
The Eagles finished the regular season with a 16-0 conference record for the first time in school history and 24-6 overall. They enter the MEAC tournament, favorites to win it all. A MEAC tournament title last year earned them their first trip to the NCAA tournament.
For the Eagles, anything short of a repeat is considered a failure. Moton said he feels confident heading into the tournament but maintains it won’t be easy.
“It’s always going to be tough for us because everyone is gunning, and contrary to popular belief, everyone is capable of beating everyone,” Moton said. “First thing I do as I look at my phone and look at the scores of the MEAC, there’s always someone that beats someone that everyone didn’t project to win, so we got to be ready. We got to be prepared. It’s our first time going into that environment where it’s really do-or-die.”
N.C. Central is led by a balanced offense and a stingy defense.
Four of the five starters average in double figures, from 10.5 to 14.9 points per game. The fifth starter averages 7.9 points per game. N.C. Central gives up 54.7 points per game, fourth fewest in the nation.
There were several times this season N.C. Central almost lost. On Jan. 26, when the Eagles played Delaware State, it came down to two missed free throws, and N.C. Central won 55-54 at home. On Jan. 17, the Eagles led Norfolk State by one point with less than a minute left before winning 60-56.
And Jan. 24, after a layup by senior forward Jordan Parks with 11 seconds left gave N.C. Central the lead by two, Coppin State missed a 3-point attempt with three seconds left that would have won the game.
“I told them, the regular season is like the ‘Karate Kid’ – not the Will Smith ‘Karate Kid’ or Jaden, no disrespect. I’m talking about the Daniel LaRusso – where he was fighting, but he was fighting at the tournament,” Moton said. “He was going to live to see another day regardless. But now the tournament is like Karate Kid 2 when he had to pick up the bridge and move it, and the guy said we’re going to fight until somebody dies. That’s a different thing. It’s 13 dogs chasing one bone, and that’s the analogy I use. No mistakes allowed.”
Parks said knowing there’s a bull’s eye on the Eagles’ backs and everyone is gunning for them is good for the team.
It helps us focus, he said. N.C. Central will play Coppin State at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Coppin State eliminated Bethune-Cookman 64-60.
“The key is to stay focused and stay hungry. That’s all it comes down to,” Parks said. “Our motto of the year is unsatisfied. We’re not happy that we’re 16-0, we’re not happy that we’ve won regular season. That means nothing. We’re in to MEAC play now, and one game can change everything.”