Though it is often right around the bottom of NCAA Division I, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference furnishes some really good teams from time to time. North Carolina Central provided yet another example of that this year.
The 2013-14 season was N.C. Central’s year. The Eagles completed their four-year ascent to the top of MEAC and were easily its best team, winning both the regular season and tournament titles and capturing their first-ever D-I tourney bid. The Eagles finished 28-6 overall, won at North Carolina State, and were competitive in every one of their losses, even giving Wichita State a stiff challenge on the road in December.
NCCU was terrific defensively, clutch at the free throw line in some big games (41-for-45 against N.C. State), and featured the MEAC’s best player in Jeremy Ingram. For its efforts, the team earned a fair 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and it was actually a surprise to many that the Eagles didn’t give Iowa State more a challenge than they did in a 93-75 loss in the tourney, a game in which the Cyclones pulled away in the second half. That’s a testament to how much respect was earned by coach LaVelle Moton and his team after a season that ranks right up there with the MEAC’s legacy of great Division I teams that includes NCAA Tournament first round winners Coppin State (1997), Hampton (2001), Norfolk State (2012) as well as Don Corbett’s string of seven straight NCAA tourney appearances at North Carolina A&T in the 1980s.
The MEAC needed a team to grab some attention, because as a whole it was a tough year. The conference finished 31st of 32 in conference RPI, ahead of only the SWAC. Just three teams finished with winning records-Hampton and Norfolk State joined N.C. Central in that category, and both advanced to postseason play, losing narrowly in the first rounds of the CBI and CIT, respectively.
Overall it was a league that couldn’t shoot straight-a whopping seven league schools finished among the bottom 18 in NCAA Division I in field goal percentage. The MEAC also was senior-dominated last year, meaning the short-term outlook is not immediately rosy for the league as a whole. The bright side is that, particularly for the seven teams that lost at least 20 games, there is little place to go but up in the future, with plenty of schools now holding the opportunity for a North Carolina Central-like turnaround.
|North Carolina Central||15-1||28-6|
|South Carolina State||5-11||9-21|
|North Carolina A&T||5-11||9-23|
The MEAC men’s and women’s basketball tournaments conducted together at the venerable Norfolk Scope were literally an all-week affair, with play beginning on a Monday and continuing all the way through Saturday.
The men’s tourney was free of upsets in the first round, though not without nervous moments for higher seeds. In the first men’s first round game, No. 4 seed Norfolk State had to hold off a furious rally by No. 13 Maryland-Eastern Shore. The Hawks rallied from a 23-point second half deficit to tie it late before the Spartans held on 78-74. Other first round games saw No. 5 Savannah State over No. 12 South Carolina State 61-47, No. 8 Howard beat No. 9 North Carolina A&T 53-47, No. 7 Coppin State over No. 10 Bethune-Cookman 75-68 and No. 6 Florida A&M edged No. 11 Delaware State 65-61.
Top seed North Carolina Central romped through its quarterfinals and semifinals, routing Howard 92-46 and then hammering Norfolk State 68-45, one round after the Spartans had knocked out Savannah State 57-47. The bottom half of the bracket saw some upheaval in the quarterfinals, as Coppin State surprised No. 2 Hampton 83-77 in the quarterfinals. Third-seeded Morgan State defeated Florida A&M 81-68 in the final quarter, and the Bears then ended Coppin State’s season with a 79-64 win in the semifinals.
The championship was not simply a coronation for N.C. Central. Morgan State played the Eagles to a 31-31 tie at halftime, and the score was still tied with 13 minutes remaining before Central slowly pulled away. Jeremy Ingram had 29 points and the Eagles made 26-for-33 from the foul line in a 71-62 win for their first-ever NCAA Division I Tournament bid.
Player of the Year: Jeremy Ingram, G, Sr., N.C. Central
Rookie of the Year: James Daniel, G, Fr., Howard
Defensive Player of the Year: Du’Vaughn Maxwell, F, Sr., Hampton
Coach of the Year: LeVelle Moton, N.C. Central
Justin Black, G, Sr., Morgan State
Ian Chiles, C, Sr., Morgan State
Jeremy Ingram, G, Sr., N.C. Central
Du’Vaughn Maxwell, F, Sr., Hampton
Michael Murray, F, Sr., Coppin State
- North Carolina Central captured its first MEAC regular season and tournament titles
- N.C. Central also posted the MEAC’s biggest non-conference win, an 82-72 overtime victory at North Carolina State. Coppin State also posted a high-profile win when it won its season opener at Oregon State 78-73.
- Hampton and Norfolk State also both qualified for postseason play. The Pirates were invited to the College Basketball Invitational and lost a hard-fought 69-65 decision to Penn State, while the Spartans fell to Eastern Michigan 58-54 in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament
- N.C. Central ranked fourth in Division I in scoring margin (+14.4 ppg), fifth in field goal percentage defense (38.1%) and 10th in scoring defense (59.5 ppg).
What we expected, and it happened: The top teams in the MEAC remained much the same as the year before. Norfolk State, N.C. Central, Savannah State, Hampton and Morgan State comprised the top five for the second consecutive season.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: North Carolina A&T was thought to be ready for perennial first division status after its NCAA tourney appearance in 2013, but the Aggies took a big step back.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Not much. Guess one could call Florida A&M’s sixth-place finish a surprise, considering the Rattlers were picked 10th in the MEAC’s preseason poll of league coaches.
Teams on the rise: Hampton, Howard. Despite losing Du’Vaughn Maxwell, it may be the Pirates’ time to win the MEAC this year…if they can dethrone N.C. Central. Howard did not get a single minute from a senior last year, meaning the Bison already have an experience edge next year, but guard James Daniel was excellent as a freshman and should only get better.
Teams on the decline: Morgan State, Savannah State, Norfolk State. Decline is relative, as these teams all could still be better than the bottom half of the MEAC, but all three suffered heavy graduation losses and will have a much different look next year.
Next Season Conference Outlook
The MEAC will have a much different look next season, as this year’s all-conference team was dominated by seniors. No less than 14 of the 16 all-conference spots were taken up by seniors, with only Delaware State (6-10 forward Kendall Gray) and Howard (5-11 guard Daniel, who also was the league’s top newcomer) returning players from the team. Even more than most years, the non-conference gauntlet schedules MEAC teams play will be about preparing for conference play.
Hampton returns the most experienced team of the frontrunners, and the Pirates are set in the backcourt with Deron Powers, Brian Darden and plenty of capable contributors. If Jervon Pressley can come close to replacing Maxwell, then the Pirates may be the team to beat. N.C. Central loses star guard Jeremy Ingram, but two starters return (Jay Copeland and Karamo Jawara) as well as sixth man Jordan Parks, who was second on the team in scoring. Those three measure 6-7, 6-8 and 6-7, so the frontcourt should be set, and the backcourt receives a boost in senior transfer (and all-name team candidate) Nimrod Hilliard IV, who averaged 14.1 points and 4.9 assists at Lamar last year.
After those two, it’s anybody’s guess. This is truly a tough league to handicap, as everyone else loses a ton (Norfolk State, Morgan State, Savannah State) or returns a lot of players from teams that were not very good. One team to keep an eye on is North Carolina A&T, which slumped last year but is led by venerable coach Cy Alexander and was just in the NCAA Tournament in 2013. Howard also has a chance to move up based on returning experience. Coppin State, Delaware State, Florida A&M and Maryland-Eastern Shore all welcome new coaches, only adding to the unpredictability of the MEAC next year.