When Norfolk State defeated Hampton on Monday night, the Spartans maintained their membership in an elite club: those teams that are undefeated in conference.
Membership in the club is rare, and unfortunately it doesn't come with Kate Upton guarding the entrance rope. Only Louisiana Tech, Memphis, Gonzaga, Akron, Miami and Norfolk State have the cards to get in. But one of those things is not like the others.
Say what you will about the competition in Conference USA, at least Southern Mississippi has gotten lip service as an at large candidate to challenge Memphis. Gonzaga has faced off against St. Mary's twice and won both. Louisiana Tech has Denver and Utah State to thank for a little lift in their SOS. Akron had to deal with a veteran Ohio team that pushed them to the limit. Miami, well, it plays in the ACC.
But Norfolk State, at 12-0, hasn't even played all of its conference mates, and it won't. With 13 teams in the league, each team in the conference misses out on facing one other team. For Norfolk State that means missing out on North Carolina Central.
That is unfortunate, because if the Spartans can continue undefeated in the MEAC -- and KenPom only gives them a 27.2 percent chance of doing so -- it will come with a big asterisk.
That is because North Carolina Central is the best team statistically in the league. The Eagles, who are 11-1 after a loss to Savannah State, own the best score in the Pomeroy ratings, in the MRI, and in the Sagarin numbers. The first two have Central in the 130s which is a better spot than either ranking gives to Northeastern, a team that clinched a share of its regular season conference title Wednesday night.
But because North Carolina Central has a loss, the league's face is Norfolk State.
That is not to say that Norfolk State isn't one of the better teams in the MEAC. They just shouldn't be undefeated good.
The Spartans have the third-best offense in the conference, and hold the second-best defense. But some of that has to come because they haven't faced off against the Eagles, the best shooting squad in the conference. That would put a big dent into the league-leading effective field goal defense held by the Spartans.
And while last season Kyle O'Quinn was the smiling face everyone remembers, there is little resembling the standout leader for the Spartans. Pendarvis Williams is still in Norfolk, but he gets limited touches in the offense despite being the most efficient player on the floor and most effective shooter for the Spartans (someone get this man the ball). And he only manages to hold onto it better than everyone else.
They have a freshman big man coming off the bench in Rashid Gaston, who could turn into a formidable inside player for the Spartans. But he is still a freshman and isn't going to unthrone senior Rob Johnson, or 7-footer Brandon Goode (who is a very good shot blocker, and a decent rebounder, but is foul prone and can't take advantage of his skills).
At least on North Carolina Central, it is clear that Jeremy Ingram and Stanton Kidd are not only the best players, but it is acknowledged by the coach.
Going undefeated, no matter what league you are in, is difficult, and Norfolk State deserves all the accolades that come with that. But I would venture that the Spartans won't be dancing again this March.
It is probably going to be North Carolina Central. I would say that definitely, if we had any evidence on the court that the Eagles are better. But thanks to a quirky schedule, that will likely have to wait until the conference tournament title game.