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MEAC notebook: Norfolk State is the class of the league once again

But the Spartans have plenty of competition.

NCAA Basketball: No.Carolina AT at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

We’re almost a month into MEAC play and plenty has happened so far. There’s been upsets, comebacks, and familiar teams near the top of the standings. Through the madness, there are my takeaways as January nears its close.

Norfolk State has reloaded — again

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

Norfolk State is a standard of consistency within the MEAC. Since rising up to Division I in the late 90s, the Spartans have never had a losing record in conference play.

Seven of the team’s top eight scorers from a season ago are gone. Walking into this season, over 65 percent of the Spartans’ roster had not played a single second for the team. Yet here we are, and Norfolk State is 4-0 in conference play.

The Spartans have put up dominant performances, most notably their 13-point win over Bethune-Cookman. There’s still a long way to go, but the Spartans are once again a top team in the conference.

Parity in the conference makes things unpredictable

North Carolina Central, please enter the room. The Eagles sit at 3-2 in conference play.

NC Central is the most nationally known program in the MEAC thanks to its three-straight trips to the NCAA Tournament. But the Eagles haven’t been seen at their standard. And it’s not because of their play; it’s because of the teams that have pushed them.

Delaware State shocked the Eagles with a buzzer-beater. In their next game, they squeaked by Maryland-Eastern Shore by five in overtime. After NC Central thrashed Bethune-Cookman by 27 points, the league was put on notice. The Eagles appeared to be back. So what happened next? Florida A&M beat the Eagles by 11 points in a game that wasn’t even that close. In fact, the Rattlers held a 26-point lead during the second half.

The Eagles will recover, but the bigger picture is conference parity.

In the 11-team league, seven teams have three-or-more wins in conference play. Morgan State, Florida A&M, and SC State are a few wins away from hopping in the standings. Meanwhile, NC A&T and Norfolk State can easily fall down after having one bad weekend.

South Carolina State is a deep sleeper team

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina State at Memphis The Commercial Appeal-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC

It’s been a long time since the SC State Bulldogs reigned supreme on the MEAC hardwood. For a 13-season stretch between 1993 and 2006, the Bulldogs won at least 10 MEAC games every season. With that, they saw four NCAA Tournament berths in 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2003.

Fast forward to 2020 and the Bulldogs are tied for second place in the MEAC. They survived shootouts with Coppin State and Howard and showed their dominance in wins against UMES and FAMU.

In his sixth full season as head coach, Murray Garvin has a deep roster on his hands. Seven players average 20 minutes or more for this team.

This all starts with Damani Applewhite. One of the MEAC’s most known scorers, he’s bound to score 20 points no matter which gym he walks into. Ian Kinard joins him. Both are around 6’8, adding useful height to this team.

Garvin also did something smart: he picked up two Savannah State transfers.

Why is that smart? When SSU transitioned to Division II starting this season, this meant that any player on their rosters could transfer without having to sit out a year. So he picked up their second-leading scorer from last season, Zach Sellers. He added Isaiah Felder as well to give them two shifty guards who can push the pace.

Overall, at least 13 players have played at least 10 games for the Bulldogs. So when conference play gets tough, the Bulldogs will have a lot of players to rotate in. The numbers advantage will be beneficial.

Coaching change has boosted North Carolina A&T

NCAA Basketball: No.Carolina AT at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

In late December, the NC A&T athletic department put head coach Jay Joyner on an indefinite suspension. We still aren’t sure exactly what happened, but this move made some noise given NC A&T athletics’ long list of positive news department-wide.

Willie Jones was named interim head coach and the Aggies took a loss in a buy game against Illinois a few days later. Since then, they are 5-1.

Yes, it’s conference play, but before Joyner’s suspension, the Aggies were 3-10. Their season opener was a 33-point loss to rival UNC Greensboro in a game that’s usually closer.

Within MEAC play so far, the Aggies have scored over 90 points on three occasions. In their latest game, they silenced a loud Morgan State crowd as the Bears missed 22 three-pointers and could not stop the Aggies’ sharpshooting.

Plus, to their benefit, their next four games are at home. With a hot home crowd behind them for the next two and the winning column going their way, the Aggies and their interim coach are a hard team to stop.