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Norfolk State is off to the best start in MEAC history

The Spartans have run out to a 9-1 start.

NCAA Basketball: Norfolk State at Xavier Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Behold the green and gold. History has been made in Norfolk.

The Norfolk State Spartans have opened the 2021-22 season with a 9-1 record, which is the best 10-game non-conference start in MEAC history. It can’t be overlooked that the Spartans have done this all while winning 17 of their last 19 games, dating back to last season.

“The guys are all starting to buy in a little bit,” Norfolk State’s ninth-year head coach Robert Jones told Mid-Major Madness, “I still think our best basketball is ahead of us.”

In a game that has become 3-point heavy, the Spartans are winning in a different way: through defense, interior scoring and trips to the line.

A league like the MEAC is offense-heavy, and that’s something that the Spartans have done well to stop. NSU ranks No. 73 in the country in scoring defense, the highest for an HBCU and for any team that has played a double-digit number of games. They also rank No. 11 in in defensive field-goal percentage.

“The guys [have been] buying into Coach Jones system: playing defense, playing gritty, playing tough, doing the little things that nobody else wants to do,” senior Joe Bryant Jr. said.

That grittiness has been shown by Bryant. In eight games against Division-I opponents this year he has been sent to the free-throw line 37 times, making all 37. Last March, Bryant had his best two-game stretch scoring 47 points in two games to send the Spartans to their first NCAA Tournament since 2012. He turned that into more hardware, winning MEAC Tournament Most Outstanding Player.

Norfolk would not leave the tournament empty-handed once again, as it beat Appalachian State 54-53 in the First Four. Bryant carried his great play from the MEAC Tournament in Norfolk to the NCAA Tournament in Indiana, scoring 10 points against the Mountaineers.

This preseason, Bryant was expected to be one of, if not the best, top returners in the league. Although he made the league's preseason first team, he did not win Preseason Player of the Year. That went to Morgan State’s De’Torrion Wade.

“I just use that as motivation, a chip on my shoulder to stay locked in, keep working,” Bryant said.

He’s is averaging 11.1 points and 4.2 rebounds this season as Norfolk has a completely different starting lineup from last season. Bryant is the only returning starter, as two former bench pieces in Daryl Anderson and Nyzaiah Chambers have gotten the call up to be starters.

The two other starters are transfers: Rider’s Christian Ings and Little Rock’s Kris Bankston. Bankston has quietly been one of the best big men in the country, starting every game so far this season for the Spartans, picking up double-doubles in two of his appearances so far this season. That’s two more than he ever had at Little Rock.

Over the offseason, Bankston entered the transfer portal after four seasons at Little Rock. He seemed to click with not only the Norfolk State coaches instantly, but everyone.

“When I had my virtual visit, the staff talked to me like I was family, and when I came here everyone treated me like family,” Bankston said.

His teammates are feeding him like he’s family down low as he has 65 shot attempts, all from inside the arc. Not only is he getting those looks, but he’s also hitting them, and has become one of the best in the country at doing that. Bankston ranks 19th in the country in effective field-goal percentage and 70th in true-shooting percentage. On his two worst shooting nights, he still shot 70%.

During the Chris Paul HBCU shootout, nationally televised from Phoenix, Arizona, this past week, Bankston scored 18 points against archrival Hampton. He will have another chance to show up the Pirates in the Battle of the Bay as they face off at the Convocation Center on Saturday at 5:30 (EST).

“We’re excited to play them again. Being new, I didn’t understand the rivalry at first but then the guys told me about it and the big crowds this game gets. It should be exciting,” Bankston said.

Sunday’s game was also Bryant first’s game against the Pirates as injury, sickness or suspension came across every other time. He led the way with 20 points, sinking all 12 of his free throws. That performance resulted in some praise from Paul.

In the Hampton Roads area, games like that are remembered by fans of both sides. The rivalry is not only one of the fiercest in HBCU athletics but in college basketball.

“Take the records and throw them out the window because we’re 9-1 if we lose that game people aren’t going to care that we’re 9-1 they’re going to care that we lost that game,” Jones said, “We’re 0-0 this weekend. This 9-1 stuff is cool to talk about, but it don’t really mean nothing for this weekend. You know, we’re 0-0 like it’s the first game of the season.”

Although Norfolk has had an amazing start to its season, it is nowhere near the finish line. After beating teams from the OVC, CAA, MAC, Big South and SWAC so far, it’ll look to add onto that with wins from the American, MVC, and Mountain West in December.

If they make it to the Big Dance, they could shock some people again. Just ask Frank Haith and Missouri about what happened in 2012.