As we enter the home stretch in conference play everybody is going to be looking for this year's Florida Gulf Coast. That's why we've put together "Cinderella Watch" to profile all the mid-major teams you should know before heading into March.
North Carolina Central Eagles
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
Overall Record: 22-5
Conference Record: 12-1
Key Wins: North Carolina State (55)
Worst Losses: Florida A&M (296), IUPUI (313)
Average RPI Win: 286
Average RPI Loss: 142
NCAA Tournament History: 0 Appearances
I think it says a lot about NCCU's non-conference schedule that they have two losses against opponents in the bottom 60 of the RPI and the average RPI of the five teams they've lost to is still that high - that's thanks to early season games against Cincinnati, Wichita State, NC State, and Maryland - all on the road.
The Eagles have won 13 games in a row now, although that streak should be at 15 games - if anyone would care to explain how they dropped that game against Florida A&M I'm all ears. That loss, where the Eagles led by 14 with just under 11 minutes left and then watched a 19-2 game-ending run happen, is hopefully more bulletin board material for themselves than blueprint for their opponents. I am really not sure how you blow a 14 point lead on the road and then put together a 35-3 run at home with all the same players on the court.
This is, of course, assuming that they get to the tournament. The MEAC is an extremely weak conference - NCCU is the only team with an RPI in the top 200 - so it's autobid or bust for the Eagles, no matter how good they look in the regular season. Not only that, but the top seed they are close to clinching guarantees nothing. Last year's conference tournament saw none of the top four seeds even reach the semifinals, and the #1 seed has posted a wretched 1-3 record in the last three tournaments.
Key Player: Jeremy Ingram
Ingram has been the centerpiece of the Eagles' attack for nearly two seasons now, and is one of only two players (along with point guard Emanuel Chapman) to play more than 29 minutes per game. Ingram has come on strong of late, averaging 20.5 ppg during the winning streak and 29.5 per game over his past four. He has also shot an impressive 57% from the field, 44% from long range, and 88% from the free throw line during that streak (while averaging almost seven free throws per game).
He can't do it all, though - he poured in 64 points against Wichita and Cincinnati, but it wasn't nearly enough - his teammates shot a measly 39.6% in those games. At the very least, he needs some help, and that's where Alfonzo Houston comes in. He's stepped up everything in his second and final season after transferring to NCCU and is averaging 10 points per game.
The challenge for the Eagles is that Ingram certainly tries to do everything as a high volume shooter; he averages 14 attempts per game and has had at least 16 attempts thirteen times. This can be an issue when he's cranking up 19 shots and only making four of them (Maryland), but even shooting above 50% doesn't make 20+ attempts a good thing (Wichita State, Savannah State), especially when your second leading scorer is also a volume shooter.
Why They Will Succeed in March
This is a tricky one. They most certainly can succeed in the right matchup, one where some combination of Ingram, Houston, Jay Copeland, and Karamo Jawara can get rolling offensively, but it's hard to say just who that matchup would be. They managed to at least hang close all game with Wichita, but they were never in it against Maryland or Cincinnati. Even in their loss to IUPUI they needed a late run to make a game of it.
Right now they are projected as a 15-seed, which means a likely matchup against someone like Kansas, Creighton, Villanova or Duke. Kansas' athleticism would be a poor match for them, and there is no way they are versatile or consistent enough to hang with Duke. Doug McDermott would be a real challenge for them, and Villanova's been smoked three times, but that was by Syracuse and Creighton.
Perhaps a matchup with someone who has shown cracks in the armor, like San Diego State would serve them well, but like any other 15 or 16 seed, they'll need a lot to go right for success to come their way. There's a reason they would be only the eighth No. 15 seed to win an opening round game, but if any such team can pull it off, this might be the one.