Many believed it would be a rebuilding year for the 2017 MEAC champions. The departure of seven seniors to graduation, five of which were starters, brought several questions as to the ability for the Eagles to repeat and return to the NCAA Tournament. Head coach LeVelle Moton didn't waver, brought in ten new pieces, continued the high expectations, and guided his team to back-to-back tournament appearances.
Under Moton, the NC Central Eagles (19-15, 9-7) have reached the NCAA tournament three out of the last five seasons. Not only does Moton have a great basketball mind, one of his many strengths is his ability to build meaningful relationships with his teams year in and year out. That skill has been one of the biggest keys to his success, due to the number of transfers he recruits for his program, that requires getting players on the same page in a short time span. Overall, during the NC Central legend’s tenure, Moton has shown the type of leadership, passion, growth, and in-game adjustments that we all talk about when we mention traits of an exceptional coach.
The core of Moton’s roster receiving substantial minutes come from their freshmen backcourt. Navigating the platoon is Jordan Perkins, a crafty distributor, who leads NCCU in assists with 5.4 per game. He has a high basketball I.Q. with the poise that has settled this offense. His backcourt mate—Reggie Gardner Jr. — is one of three Eagles that averages in double figure scoring at 11.2 points per game, he has the ability to stretch the defense with his shooting. Moton spoke with the media about his freshmne’s progess similar to Tito Jackson with and without Michael Jackson.
Raasean Davis headlined the Eagles as the leading scorer and rebounder averaging 15 points per game, accompanied by eight rebounds per game on 66 percent field goal shooting, good for first in the MEAC and fifth in the nation, respectively.
The heart and soul of this unit is senior Pablo Rivas. His 11.8 points per game makes him the third Eagle to average in double figures, its second-leading scorer, and he also pulls down nearly seven rebounds a game. Rivas has only started two games this year, but his role has a huge impact on their success. When his number is called, he generally makes the play needed. Whether it be a loose ball, defensive stop, or a big shot; his leadership and extension of his coach’s pedigree reflects in the effort and energy he gives this team.
For the first time in the NCAA Tournament, two HBCU’s will square off against each other in the First Four when the Eagles play Texas Southern. Each team has had their share of defensive inefficiencies, however the Eagles bring in the 62nd-ranked effective field goal percentage defense according to KenPom.
They will have to find a way to slow down the 23.4 points per game from Demontrae Jefferson, and explosive graduate transfer Donte Clark’s 18.6 points per game. The Eagles will have to defend without fouling, keeping Texas Southern off the foul line, a place the Tigers get to often, as 23.4 percent of their offensive comes from the foul line (12th in the nation).
You can bet that Mike Davis will be well prepared to load up on Davis, therefore the perimeter must step up to take some of the pressure off him. One thing that can make things smoother, defense turning into offense, getting points in transition.
This game has all the makings to be a classic, as I anticipate it coming down to the wire. Whichever team takes care of the basketball and controls the boards has the edge. For the Eagles, it may just be the Moton in-game adjustments that bring them their first tournament victory.