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MEAC Tournament Preview: Spartans seek back-to-back NCAA Tournament trips

Norfolk State claimed their spot atop the MEAC, but can it hold off conference foes with the NCAA Tournament on the line?

NCAA Basketball: Norfolk State at Xavier
Christian Ings is one of four Norfolk State players to average at least 9.9 points per game this season.
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

When the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament tips-off on March 9, Norfolk State will seek back-to-back bids to the Big Dance for the first time in school history. The Spartans have seen success in their last two tournament trips, upsetting Missouri as a 15-seed in 2012 and defeating Appalachian State in the First Four in 2021.

As the clear favorites, the Spartans (21-6, 12-2 MEAC) finished the regular season three games above second place Howard (16-12, 9-5 MEAC).

With the Norfolk Scope serving as the site for the MEAC tournament, the “neutral-site” will serve as an alternative home arena for the regular season champions.

Can the Spartans make program history or will the Scope see an upset on the hardwood?

The Bracket

Schedule

Wednesday, March 9 (Quarterfinals)

Game 1: (1) Norfolk State vs. (8) Delaware State, 6 p.m., ESPN+

Game 2: (2) Howard vs. (7) Coppin State, 8:30 p.m., ESPN+

Thursday, March 10 (Quarterfinals)

Game 3: (4) Morgan State vs. (5) South Carolina State, 6 p.m., ESPN+

Game 4: (3) North Carolina Central vs. (6) Maryland Eastern Shore, 8:30 p.m., ESPN+

Friday, March 11 (Semifinals)

Game 5: (1) Norfolk St./(8) Delaware St. vs (4) Morgan St./(5) SC St., 6 p.m., ESPN+

Game 6: (2) Howard/(7) Coppin St. vs. (3) NC-Central vs. MD-Eastern Shore, 8 p.m., ESPN+

Saturday, March 12 (Finals)

Game 7: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 1 p.m., ESPN2

The Favorite: Norfolk State (21-6, 12-2 MEAC)

MEAC Player of the Year Joe Bryant Jr. powered the Norfolk State Spartans in multiple statistical categories during the regular season, while leading the MEAC in scoring. The senior guard leads Norfolk State in scoring (16.8 points per game), assists (2.2 assists per contest), and in steals (1.5 steals per game). Bryant’s 91.8 percent from the free-throw line ranks first in the MEAC and is good for fourth in all of college basketball.

Fellow senior Kris Bankston earned All-MEAC Second Team honors, averaging 11.2 points per contest. The Little Rock, Ark., native led the MEAC in field-goal percentage shooting at a clip of 72%, while ranking second in rebounding (6.9 boards per contest).

All-MEAC Third Team selection Jalen Hawkins rounds out the senior trio in Norfolk, tallying 12.9 points per game,

The Spartans were the MEAC’s best defensive team in the regular season, allowing just 63.9 points per game on 37% shooting.

With the Norfolk Scope sits a mere six minutes from the Spartan’s home gym, the regular season champions have homecourt advantage and the easiest road to the Field of 68.

The Contenders

Howard (16-12, 9-5 MEAC):

The Bison head to Norfolk as the best scoring offense in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, tallying 77.1 points per game. Spurring their offense is Kenneth Blakeney, who shot a league-best 36% from beyond the arc in the regular season.

Four Howard starters earned All-MEAC honors with First Team selection Kyle Foster (16.1 points per game) headlining the awards for the Bison. Steve Settle III (13.8 points per game) joined Elijah Hawkins (12.9 points per contest) on the All-MEAC Second Team. Hawkins also earned MEAC Rookie of the Year, while Randall Brumant was selected to the All-MEAC Third Team and All-Defensive Team.

Although Norfolk State defeated the Bison by 22 in their last contest, Howard fell to the Spartans by just three in their first matchup in January.

Howard defeated fellow contender North Carolina Central in both meetings this year, while dropping a close battle to potential NCAA Tournament team Notre Dame 71-68.

As the Bison will be favored to meet the Spartans with a trip to the Big Dance on the line, don’t be surprised if they clinch their first NCAA Tournament appearance in three decades.

North Carolina Central (15-14, 8-5 MEAC):

North Carolina Central has earned three of the last four bids to the Field of 68 from the MEAC, cementing themselves as a conference power.

Despite a season that featured ups and downs and a COVID pause, the Eagles were one of two teams who handed the Spartans a loss in conference play.

Sophomore Justin Wright earned a spot on the All-MEAC First Team, while improving his scoring average from 1.3 points per game last season to 13.7 points per contest this season. Eric Boone, the other half of Central’s dynamic duo, was voted to the All-MEAC Second Team and ranked second in the conference with 3.7 assists per game.

With Levelle Moton at the helm, North Carolina Central is capable of winning three games in three days and earning a spot in the NCAA tournament.

The Darkhorse: Morgan State (12-13, 7-6 MEAC)

Morgan State’s record is not to be taken lightly as the Bears enter postseason play as the hottest team in the MEAC, earning victories in their last four contests.

De’Torrion Ware (10.9 points per game) is lone Bear to earn all-conference honors, earning a spot on the All-MEAC Second Team.

Kevin Broadus’ squad is as experienced as they come, as their roster features seven seniors and three graduate students. Among this group is Seventh Woods, former NCAA Champion at North Carolina, who has seen action in three NCAA Tournaments.

Although Morgan State will only be favored in their quarterfinal matchup, the Bears were the other conference foe to hand Norfolk State a loss in conference play. If the No. 4 seed in the MEAC can replicate their Feb. 21 performance, they may find themselves playing with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line.

Prediction:

Although Norfolk State faltered against Morgan State last month, it is the clear favorite and will earn a place in the MEAC Finals. Howard versus North Carolina Central is the wild card here, as the Bison would attempt to earn their third victory of the season over the Eagles. Ultimately, Norfolk State will prove why it finished in first place by three games, defeating Howard by double digits.