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League Retrospectives: North Carolina Central is a safe bet in the MEAC

LeVelle Moton’s Eagles were predictably the cream of the crop, but Florida A&M and Howard surprised.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Four-North Carolina Central Eagles vs North Dakota State Bison Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

We all love league polls when they come out. We especially love them when they love Our Favorite Team, and fire off the angry tweets when Our Favorite Team is buried down the standings.

So why throw them out when the season is over and the games have actually been played out? Over the course of the offseason we’ll compare projected results to what actually happened, and see what voters got right, what voters got wrong and what we can learn when the next time those beloved preseason polls drop.

We start with the MEAC.

What they got right

Putting LeVelle Moton and North Carolina Central atop the MEAC is becoming as safe a bet as any in the country. The Eagles had to replace three senior starters, and ended up losing star senior guard Randy Miller Jr. for all but the first eight games due to the injury, making them seemingly vulnerable to Norfolk State, North Carolina A&T and other contenders.

Nonetheless, the voters banked on Moton finding answers and he did, including senior Jibri Blount exploding into the MEAC Player of the Year (19.1 PPG, 9.3 RPG), and a defense that forced turnovers at a rate reminiscent of some of Moton’s best teams at NC Central. The Eagles also seamlessly folded in Wichita State transfer C.J. Keyser (11.6 PPG, 40.9 3P%), who, along with Jordan Perkins and Ty Graves, should make up a championship-worthy perimeter rotation in 2020-21.

And despite the usual variances, they also pegged Coppin State on the nose at seventh, as Juan Dixon’s team finished 7-9 for the second consecutive year.

What they got wrong

By far, the more fun thing to think about.

The voters underestimated the loss of Howard’s back court and, no surprise, this mainly involved R.J. Cole (21.4 PPG, 6.4 APG). The point guard did everything for the Bison as a sophomore in 2018-19, becoming one of the hottest transfers on the market last offseason. He landed at UConn, and his loss crushed Howard’s offense, which went from best in the league to toward the bottom (8th in adjusted efficiency) without him.

Mainly, losing Cole and starting shooting guard Chad Lott — who transferred to South Alabama — led to far more turnovers, and the Bison lost their first 14 conference games before salvaging a 2-2 stretch to end the year. Howard got a breakout season from freshman Wayne Bristol Jr. — the MEAC Rookie of the Year — and solid campaign from senior forward Charles Williams (18.5 PPG), but wasn’t able to stay competitive despite Cole’s loss.

On the flip side, Florida A&M rattled its way up the conference standings and outperformed dreary preseason projections. The highlight was, of course, the confetti-popping win at Iowa State on New Year’s Eve, but the Rattlers followed it up by posting double digit conference wins (10) for the first time in 13 seasons. Despite replacing leading scorer Justin Ravenel, Robert McCullum fielded a dynamic backcourt of Rod Melton Jr. and MJ Randolph. It turns out, that wasn’t something the voters saw coming.

What we can learn

For one, never count out Moton. Robert Jones’ Spartans and Jay Joyner’s Aggies have been constant foils at the top of the league, but NC Central was in pole position to head to its fourth straight NCAA Tournament when the league tournament was cancelled in mid March. It’s hardly a groundbreaking, revolutionary discovery, but Moton has continually found ways to post wins, and 2019-20 was no different.

This, the voters suspected. They didn’t suspect that Robert McCullum would have his team in the conference title mix, and maybe that’s something could stick in the years ahead. FAMU has now posted consecutive winning MEAC seasons for the first time since 2008, and the Rattlers were led by a pair of players — Melton Jr. and Randolph — assuming bigger roles than the year before.