Martin Luther King Day means a lot for so many people across the country. It’s a day that N.C. Central men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton has circled on his calendar.
On that day, Moton honors the slain civil rights leader, but he also uses it as a time to measure how his team is doing.
Since joining the MEAC in 2010-11, the Eagles have played on MLK Day six times and have gone 4-2 in those games. Moton said earlier this season he can always tell what kind of team he is going to have by time the holiday comes around.
“Yeah, this is a national holiday, and it’s also an N.C. Central holiday as well because this is the time that newcomers start to hit their stride,” Moton said. “I always tell them from day one, by Martin Luther King’s birthday, if you don’t have it by then, you’re in trouble. But normally if you have it, it will start kicking in, all you have to do is stay true to the process and continue to work your butt off, and that’s what’s happening, that’s what you’re seeing.”
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The Eagles (10-8, 4-0 MEAC) are riding a six-game win streak after defeating Morgan State, 77-63, on MLK Day this past Monday. Last season, the Eagles won on the road, defeating two-time defending MEAC champ Hampton, 64-51, on the holiday. After that win, NCCU went on to win both the MEAC regular-season and the tournament title.
The Eagles also won on MLK Day in 2013 and 2015. In 2013, N.C. Central finished second in the league, and in 2015, the Eagles won their second straight league title. They lost on MLK Day in 2016 and finished 7-9 in league play. In 2012, they lost to Morgan State and finished 10-6 in the MEAC.
So Moton is obviously onto something.
“They are buying in, they are starting to have fun, you can see it, it’s a team effort,” Moton said. “I’m looking at the points and the contributions and everyone in the locker room is excited. We had 14 assists, we’re sharing the basketball, and they put on a great show in front of their home crowd.”
Since joining the MEAC, the the Eagles have thrived in the month of January. The Eagles are 35-13 in the MEAC and have gone undefeated in January three times (2013, 2014, 2015). During those seasons, the Eagles went on to become MEAC champs twice (2014 and 2015) and runners-up once (2013).
Moton isn’t sure why his teams trend up during that month.
“It’s just how it is,” Moton said. “You can see our new guys, our freshmen, they are starting to look like young sophomores now. I think we have nine or 10 guys and nobody is looking like a robot. They are hopping into (plays) now when I call it. They are playing hard and they are trying to guard someone and that’s our main emphasis.”
The real test for Moton is if the team can win consistently on the road in the MEAC. So far this season, the Eagles have only played one conference game away from McDougald-McLendon Arena, a 65-62 win over Delaware State on Jan. 3.
“It looks like we’re hitting our stride, but I told them we’re not real just yet,” Moton said. “We have to go on the road and win; that’s when I know if you’re real or not.”
The Eagles play their final three January games on the road, beginning Saturday at Howard University.
NC Central at Howard
When: 4 p.m., Saturday
Where: Burr Gym, Washington, D.C.
Radio: NCCU Sports Network