North Carolina Central is back in the tournament for the second time in school history, last appearing in 2014. The Eagles (25-8, 13-3) are the outright champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), as they won both the regular season and conference tournament titles in convincing fashion.
NCCU is a Historically Black College or University, frequently referred to as HBCU’s, located in Durham, NC. At the helm is LeVelle Moton, a North Carolina native, coaching his alma mater. Moton has made the Eagles a consistent contender in the MEAC over his seven-year tenure. Like Moton, this year’s team built an identity through adversity.
NCCU has a team of players that have bounced around other programs, but have found a home with the Eagles. They are anchored by senior guards Patrick Cole and Dajuan Graf, both whom transferred into the program. Cole started his career at Coppin State, then went to Siena, finally landing in Durham. Graf, formally with Florida Gulf Coast when it made its tournament run, came to NCCU to be closer to his hometown of Charlotte, and to showcase his abilities in a different role.
The two are no different than several of their teammates who also began at other institutions, which is how this team bought in and found success. Pablo Rivas, Del’Vin Dickerson, Rashaun Madison, Ron Trapps, and Kyle Benton are among other Eagles who have transferred to be a part of Moton’s program.
NCCU dominated the MEAC, rolling off a 13-game win streak in conference play with superior defense and guards that can create. The Eagles were the only team in the MEAC to have a winning non-conference record, playing LSU down to the wire and getting a win at Missouri.
How the Eagles can win
NCCU must defend and rebound to be successful. The Eagles are most effective when they play a few different types of defensive schemes throughout the game to keep teams off balance. Offensively, transition baskets are huge for the Eagles’ production. When the Eagles rebound or get turnovers, their guards are excellent at running the lanes and darting ahead for quick buckets.
NCCU’s posts must finish when opportunities are presented. They must also attack the offensive glass, give their team second chances and generate their own offense through rebounds. Cole and Graf have to continue to be who they are: attackers of the paint, creators for others and big-shot makers. The Eagles will also need Rashaun Madison’s sharpshooting.
How the Eagles can lose
NCCU does not have a lot of depth that can consistently produce offense. Applying pressure to the Eagles’ guards can lead to turnovers, as they can get fatigued and make careless mistakes. The Eagles get complacent at times on the defensive boards, so second chance points can hurt this group.
Take Cole and Graf out of the game and the Eagles have very little chance of being effective on the offensive end. They are both the primary ball-handlers, as well as the top scoring options. Therefore to beat the Eagles is to take away their main options.
NCCU will face UC Davis, which is representing the Big West Conference, in one of the First Four games on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. EST.
The Eagles are similar to the Aggies in that their teams rely on guard play and match up in size. A guard match up of heavy interest will be Cole and UC Davis’ Brynton Lemar . Both are players who don’t shy away from the pressure of the big stage. Each team will hang its hat on defensive execution, but it could be role players that step up and make the difference.