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How COVID-19 ravaged the end of NC A&T’s MEAC stay

NC A&T currently sits at 6-7 in the Big South and is only a game out of a top-4 seed

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 29 North Carolina A&T at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you drive south along Highway 29 in Greensboro, North Carolina, look to your left. You’ll see North Carolina A&T State University.

The first thing that comes to the mind of many people is NBA Champion JR Smith. He plays golf there. If not that, they think of their powerhouse football program once led by NFL running back, Tarik Cohen.

But, for me, I see a college basketball program that has gone through quite possibly the most chaotic three winning seasons ever. The highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Behind them, they have an up-and-coming coach in Will Jones and one of the best atmospheres in the country at Club Corbett.

Season 1 (2019-20): Mid-season coaching change & COVID cancellations

It was a usual non-conference for any MEAC team, only until it was not. The NC A&T Aggies started 3-10 and picked up buy game money weekly. Nothing to really read into, right?

On Dec. 27 it was announced that fourth-year head coach Jay Joyner was to be suspended indefinitely. Longtime assistant Will Jones would be elevated into the head coaching job for the time being.

“It was one of those situations where being an assistant, working for some good coaches, and having a plan for what it would look like if you had that opportunity,” NC A&T head coach Will Jones told Mid-Major Madness. “Everything pretty much just stayed the same. I just sped up the pace a bit offensively and we went from scoring 59 points per game more so to 75-80 points per game.”

After a loss to Illinois, it was game on for the Aggies and Jones. They scored 90 or more in all four games during a four-game win streak, a number that was reached only three times all the 2018-19 season. They would go on to lose at Coppin State but win the next five to get tp at 8-1 in the MEAC.

NC A&T would finish with a 12-4 conference record, earning the second seed in the MEAC Tournament. Unlike most teams that March who didn’t even get a chance to play, they won their first conference tournament game by a score of 86-77 over No. 10 seed Howard. The rest of the tourney was canceled due to COVID-19.

“The first year we felt like we were playing the best basketball of anybody in the conference, so that team really wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Jones said.

The metrics showed exactly that. NC A&T was getting to the line more than anybody in the league, running the fastest offense and had clamps on their opponents’ 3-point shooting. If it were to go on, the Aggies had the perfect chance at revenge with Coppin State and NC Central, both teams that beat A&T on their home court.

NC A&T would have to wait another 10 months to get that chance though. On the brightside, Will Jones was named full-time head coach in June, following his 2020 MEAC Coach of the Year honor.

Season 2 (2020-21): An empty Club Corbett, divisions and COVID (again)

As the calendar flipped to a new season, the NC A&T Aggies were at a crossroads. Not many fans were allowed inside of a historically top-20 atmosphere in the country as they entered their last season in the MEAC, a league they were a founding member before planning to head to the Big South.

“It gives us a great advantage to have that sixth man, our guys love playing in front of it,” said Jones of the crowds. “This team really didn’t get off to playing in this environment right away.”

It would surely be a strange year, but the Aggies had no hard time capitalizing on it. While the MEAC decided to change into a division format, the Aggies were matched up with familiar foes, Florida A&M, NC Central and South Carolina State. One was Jones’ alma mater, another was a place he was an assistant coach and the other was the class of the league. Not the easiest path.

In 2002-03, Jones was the captain of the South Carolina State Bulldogs basketball team. That was also the last time that they were in the NCAA Tournament.

In 2015-16, he got hired as an assistant coach at Florida A&M after working with talents such as the Jazz’s Udoka Azubuike and the Blazers’ Nassir Little. This came after being let go at Jacksonville University and he coupled that into working at Peach Jam. There, he got in contact with Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton who urged Jones to take the Florida A&M assistant job, and that rekindled his D-I coaching time.

“So, I talked to Coach Ham and he said I have to take the FAMU job. And I knew that the FAMU job was available, but I did not know if I wanted to go back to an HBCU at that time. And he said you have to take the FAMU job and come over here every day, watch us practice, sit in my office, whatever. So that’s what I did.” Jones said.

It’s safe to say that not only this division, but the MEAC meant a lot to him.

Nonetheless, he ran through it in his final season, finishing with a 7-1 conference record. They finished out as strong as possible, sweeping NC Central.

The Aggies were out for revenge come the MEAC Tournament, but COVID-19 had different plans again. A&T had to withdraw from it due to a positive test within the program. For the second season is a row, the Aggies were a top-two seed in the MEAC Tournament and it was cut short because of COVID-19.

“We had a good core group of guys who came back and wanted that opportunity again,” said Jones. “That one was devastating. That devastated the guys that were here for two or three years. I was devastated having to give that news to the guys. It was something that really put a cloud over our program for that entire spring because there was a lot of disappointment that we didn’t play, even step on the court.”

Jones and his Aggies now had a new monster in front of them: the Big South.

Season 3 (2021-22): New distractions, new league, old Club Corbett

As a new season came on the horizon for the Aggies, a lot of outside eyes focused on another basketball-related topic on campus.

Two-time NBA Champion JR Smith enrolled in the university and became a member of the golf team.

“The first semester he would call or text me every couple of days just to see what time we were practicing, but he would never show up,” a gleeful Jones said. “The guys see him, he has the same study hall, same tutors, hopefully, he can come around here late.”

It was a typical November and December for the Aggies as they hosted no D-I teams in the non-conference slate. While the new year turned, it was time to hop into the new league.

Once again, no problem for Jones and the Aggies. They began 3-0.

“I think that the competition and parity in the league from top to bottom is unbelievable. All of the games are close, you’ve got to be good at management at the end of games, guys can’t make a ton of mistakes and you know coaches are playing hard and players are playing hard. You don’t have any cupcake nights in the Big South,” Jones said.

They would then find themselves on a tough patch where they found that out to be true. After moving to 4-1, they lost five straight against the top of the league, finding themselves at 4-6. The back end of the slate would turn out to be crucial for the Aggies.

After a victory against Charleston Southern, NC A&T hosted Longwood. The Lancers who began the Big South season with a 10-0 record became one of the darlings of the country. A&T wanted to show them what it was like playing at Club Corbett though.

Kam Langley played like a man possessed and scored 17 points in front of the small but impactful crowd, winning the matchup by a score of 70-62.

“Great win for us,” Jones said postgame, “The guys followed the game plan to a ‘T.’ I told you guys last week that I felt like the first time through the league, we figured out the adjustments we needed to make for the second half to give us a chance to win. I thought we limited their 3-point shots with our defense and our posts did a good job on the inside, making it tough for their bigs to score. I thought we did a big-time job.”

NC A&T currently sits at 6-7 in the Big South, but as of Monday, Jones thinks his team is playing their best basketball of the season, right now.

“The great thing about this team is that we’re still trending up,” said Jones, “Them going through the league one time gives them the idea of what we’re challenged with. They can see now that it’s not talent, it’s mistakes here, mistakes there, continuity, playing together, and not taking possessions off.”

The Aggies will look to play itself into a top-four seed in the Big South tournament with three more games against Campbell, High Point and Radford.

Hopefully, COVID-19 doesn’t have any other ideas.