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Robert Jones, consistency go hand in hand at Norfolk State

The Spartans have been a MEAC power. It doesn’t look like that’s changing any time soon.

NCAA Basketball: Norfolk State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Commonly, when fans think about Norfolk State basketball, they think about March 16, 2012. The tip time was 4:36 pm and around 16,000 people came to see Missouri handle Norfolk State. It was a No. 15 vs No. 2 matchup, and two hours later, Missouri did not feel like a two seed; rather they felt the pain of defeat.

Norfolk State, at the time a program around 15 years removed from playing Division II basketball, sealed an upset for the ages on the biggest college basketball stage. The Spartans were 26-9, having won the MEAC tournament. It was their first MEAC tournament win and also first tournament win of any kind since the 1996 CIAA tournament. Kyle O’Quinn was a huge key to that Spartans squad. His improvement and play at NSU elevated him to NBA status in 2012, being drafted by the Orlando Magic. The next season, the Spartans went 16-0 in MEAC play and then head-coach Anthony Evans left for FIU.

On paper, that’s where the story ends. A few stars, a coach, and the national attention is drawn away from a program who makes an upset for the ages. That does not connect to NSU. One component of that 2012 magic is still in Norfolk and he’s continuing the program’s level of consistency.

That component is Robert Jones. He’s been connected to the program since 2007, becoming head coach in 2013.

”Norfolk State has been loyal to be so I’ve been loyal to Norfolk State,” Jones said.

Ironically enough, his first recruit was O’Quinn. In his first season as an assistant coach, the Spartans achieved their first winning season as a Division I program. They made their first MEAC title game appearance the next season. Three seasons later, they won their first ever game in the NCAA tournament.

As an assistant and then when he became head coach in 2013, he made his mark by developing players. He’s coached All-MEAC players such as Pendarvis Willaims, Christ McEachin, Rob Johnson, RaShad Gaston, Malcolm Hawkins, Brandon Goode, Jordan Butler, Jeff Short, Jonathan Wade, and Zaynah Robinson. Williams and O’Quinn both won MEAC Player of the Year as well. Jones is a realist when it comes to the progression of players. Not everyone can come to school and instantly becoming a star. O’Quinn is a major example of that. He grew two inches during his time at NSU and went from an averaging around five points per game into becoming a top player in the program as well as in the MEAC.

So it’s easy to see, developing players has been key.

On a broader scale, what makes this program special is their consistency of winning, especially as a mid-major. For 20 straight seasons, the Spartans have not had a losing record in conference play, only going .500 twice and finishing with a winning record the other 18 seasons. That’s dominant, so dominant that only two current MEAC teams have a winning record against the Spartans since 1999.

Their level of consistency has continued into this season. The Spartans faced major programs like Michigan and South Carolina early in the season, while also facing mid-major powers in Stony Brook and Loyola University Chicago. They defeated UTEP in late December but a win that was major for their program was their win over Hampton in late November.

Hampton’s move to the Big South was infamous. It was announced in the Fall of 2017 and it the standoff between the MEAC and HU that was not pretty at all. In terms of basketball, Hampton was a major player and brand within the MEAC. The Pirates won the MEAC tournament six times and the regular season title four times during their time in the conference. For NSU, Hampton is a true rival, going back to their days in Division II. NSU holds an 86-48 advantage in the series since the 1958-59 season. But last season, a three-point loss to the Pirates prevented the Spartans from winning the regular season title. This season’s matchup meant so much to Norfolk State. The “Battle of the Bay” was a nonconference matchup for the first time in recent memory.

”You feel the heat in that game,” Jones said.

When both teams faced off in late November, it was an instant classic. The game went into double overtime for only the second time in series history. The 94-89 win was a statement win.

A few weeks later, MEAC play started and the Spartans did not slow down. They currently sit on top of the conference with an 8-1 record. The Spartans have split games with conference favorite Bethune-Cookman; while also beating Florida A&M who sits in second place. The Spartans rallied from 24 points behind to beat Howard by two points on the road on Feb. 2. Burr Gym is not the easiest place to play but the Spartans showed their might.

Jones has a tough and resilient team that is dominant on both sides of the ball. The Spartans currently rank within the top three in the MEAC in scoring offense, scoring defense, scoring margin, free throw percentage, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, blocked shots, and three-pointers made. They are well rounded and hard to contain.

It starts with Nic Thomas, Derrik Jamerson Jr. and Jordan Butler. Thomas leads the team in scoring, averaging 14.5 points per game. His season-high came against UMES after a 26 point performance. Derrik Jamerson Jr has came alive during MEAC play. He’s scored in double figures six times and leads the team in three-pointers. Jordan Butler has no issue doing the tough work, leading the team in rebounds as well as the conference in blocks. He also had a season-high of 21 points against Howard.

It’s not just those three either. Steven Whitley, Alex Long, and Mastadi Pitt are key components for the strongest team in the MEAC right now. When speaking of his time, Jones truly knows “it’s been a collective effort.” The MEAC has a few teams that lack depth in terms of numbers; NSU is not one of those teams.

NCAA Basketball: Norfolk State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the amazing core and great record in the MEAC, Jones wants his team to take it game by game and focus on what’s next. He understands that the MEAC tournament is coming close and teams are beginning to tighten up as seeding scenarios are being discussed by the media and fans. In the second half of MEAC play, the Spartans will have to face their five toughest MEAC opponents. This past weekend, they lost their first MEAC game on the road vs. Bethune-Cookman. They will face FAMU on the road this Monday. This weekend, they have NC Central and NC A&T at home. The Spartans will end the season at home against Howard. The league’s parity is “tough” this season and the second half of the regular season will prove that. Jones notices that “the action turns up even more” during the second half of the season.

Speaking of home, the MEAC tournament is held at the Norfolk Scope — a few blocks away from NSU’s campus. Despite the assumed potential of a home-field advantage, Coach Jones believes that “anything can happen in the Scope”. He recognizes that the regular season shows “merit” but it comes down to winning three games in the MEAC tournament; especially since the MEAC does not receive at-large bids.

NSU’s dominance this season is not a surprise, it’s apart of a successful legacy of winning consistently since the program elevated to Division I in the late 90’s. The program has sent almost 30 players to play professionally across the globe. They have established themselves a respectable brand within the Hampton Roads region but on a broader level as well. Since the 2011-2012 season, they are the 4th most winningest Division I program in the state. The program dons Nike, a major brand that draws recruits. They are apart of a conference with partnerships with ESPN, ESPN+, and now Flo Sports.

But as their fans understand, and especially Jones and his players: a big goal step is winning their first MEAC tournament since 2012. They are in a great position to do so. But before that as the second half of the MEAC slate begins, Coach Jones is keeping his team calm and collected. He wants to “win as many games as we can to win the regular season title”.

It’s something with which he, and NSU, are familiar.