On Friday North Carolina Central, the defending MEAC conference tournament champions, will travel to South Carolina to take on Clemson, an ACC opponent who made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament a year ago and comes into this season ranked in the top 25.
The Eagles will load on a bus and jump on Interstate 40, driving past exit 273B to Chapel Hill, home of UNC. After they get on 85 and head south, N.C. Central will pass exits to several Division I colleges along the way before reaching their destination, Clemson, S.C., 280 miles from their campus. They’ll play at 7 p.m.
It’s not the first time the Eagles will take on an ACC opponent, and definitely not the first time they’ve opened the season on the road. Under head coach LeVelle Moton, NCCU has started the season at home only once in the last 10 seasons and will play at home just four times in the first two months of the season.
They’ve opened the season in West Virginia, Chicago, Ohio, and Kansas. They’ve played at Clemson before to start a season, and a few times took the short trip to Chapel Hill. But then the big game in 2013 happened.
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Best win, worst win
In November of 2013, LeVelle Moton took what was perhaps his best team to Raleigh to take on N.C. State in the Global Sports Hoops Shootout.
N.C. Central had never beaten an ACC opponent before that game, but the Eagles caught the Wolfpack slipping and left Raleigh with a 82-72 win in overtime. That season ended with the first of three trips to the NCAA tournament for NCCU. It was a good year, but it turned out to be a bad thing, in a way, for the future of the Eagles.
“The best thing about this program, the biggest win that we have was the N.C. State victory, but that was also the worst thing because people saw that,” Moton said at his preseason press conference recently. “I have respect for other coaches so I don’t want to sit up here and call out other schools, but if you looked at our schedule since then we can’t get any games in North Carolina. It’s really difficult to walk into a North Carolina gym, or a South Carolina gym, or Virginia. Last year we had to fly all the way out to Arizona just to play one basketball game.”
Clemson a tough task
On Friday, NCCU, who finished last season 19-16 overall and 9-7 in the MEAC, have another chance to pick up one of those statement victories.
The Tigers will be a tough task, but nothing the Eagles aren’t use to. In 2016, NCCU played tough at Ohio State before falling by three and 14 days later went into SEC country and defeated Missouri. The stage shouldn’t be too big for a team that’s played in consecutive NCAA tournaments.
Moton has three starters returning from last year’s surprise MEAC tournament championship team. Sophomore point guard Jordan Perkins, and backcourt mate Reggie Gardner Jr., along with senior forward Raasean Davis started a combined 95 games last season and the trio all earned All-MEAC preseason honors. Larry Knight Jr., Zacarry Douglas and John Guerra give Moton something he typically doesn’t have: Six players from his previous team who played big minutes the year before.
Moton’s rosters are typically heavy with transfers or players who had to sit out the previous season due to NCAA transfer rules. So for the first time in a long time, he has players back who are familiar with each other and have played on the biggest stage together. That makes Friday’s trip to Clemson a game NCCU fans expect to win because of their experience and Moton’s win in an ACC gym on his resume.
But if he picks up another road win against an ACC team, it might be even harder to get another one on the schedule.
“I respect it, if I was them I wouldn’t play us either. It’s too much of a risk,” Moton said. “We’ve had some really good basketball players here and I don’t think anyone wants to jeopardize their livelihood and that’s what’s it’s boiling down to.”
Losing to an HBCU
The risk, Moton explained, is a coach at a bigger school -- with more resources -- playing against, and losing to, a school such as a NCCU. It’s already happened in this young basketball season. Texas Southern, an HBCU located in Houston, went on the road and defeated Baylor, a Big 12 school, 72-69. Texas Southern, which has also been to back-to-back NCAA tournaments, eliminated NCCU in the NCAA First Four last March in Dayton, Ohio.
“When I talk to other coaches on the road, the word is if you lose to an HBCU, you’ll probably get fired from your job because they know they have more resources, they know they have more money,” Moton explained. “Their fan base is looking at them like how are we losing to this school when we have four or five more resources than them. So now the first thing they are doing is pointing the finger at the athletic director or the coach and I get it, I understand.”
Moton said he’s on the flip side of that coin now. When the Eagles finished 2-28 in his first year, getting games the next few seasons wasn’t an issue. Moton joked that teams would be “making brownies and cupcakes for you after the games,” but things have changed.
He has made it clear that he would rather not load his team on a plane or bus and travel all over the country to play, but he has come to grips with it. He tells his scheduling coordinator to just “get it done” instead of trying to find games closer to home.
Roy on the schedule?
The Eagles hold private scrimmages with Shaw and UNC-Greensboro. He knows Roy Williams would put him on the schedule -- the Eagles opened the 2014-15 season at UNC -- but they haven’t been able to work it out recently. Asked if he would be interesting in scrimmaging Duke or N.C. State, two schools who held exhibition games against Division II opponents, Moton wasn’t concerned about playing games that’s don’t count.
“I ain’t interested in a scrimmage,” Moton said. “When those lights really come on it’s difficult to get games.”
Clemson went on the road to start his exhibition season, playing at UNC-Wilmington. UNC opened its season at Wofford and will travel to Elon before they step foot inside the Dean Dome for their home opener on Monday against Stanford.
Moton laughed when asked what would it take to get a local ACC team to make the short trip to Durham and play in the 3,000-seat McDougald-McLendon Arena.
“I would love it,” Moton said, grinning from ear-to-ear, “but that’s not happening. And I understand it, so I don’t even harass them with it.”