Defending MEAC regular season and tournament champion N.C. Central kicked off the 2017-18 season Monday at McDougald-Mclendon Arena.
Head coach LeVelle Moton put his new team through the paces. The Eagles start the season Nov. 10 at University of Illinois-Chicago.
Last season N.C. Central went 25-9 overall and 13-3 in the MEAC, advancing to the NCAA tournament for the second time under Moton. It’s too soon to tell if this team can duplicate that success, but here are some early observations from Day One.
Personnel turnover is nothing new for Moton, who builds his roster year-to-year with transfers, rarely signing more than one or two true freshmen. Moton lost seven seniors from last season’s team, including all five starters. Senior forward Pablo Rivas is the only returning player who averaged double-digit minutes (18.4) last season.
Moton’s style has been an eye opener for his new players.
“We practice hard every day, every play, and when you’re new you aren’t really accustomed to that, whether you’re coming from a junior college or high school,” Moton said. “You’re not accustomed to being held accountable and having someone hold you to that standard every second of the day.”
The first day, Moton said the team was going hard, but that doesn’t mean they were doing things the right way.
“There is a quote that says ‘don’t mistake activity for achievement,’” Moton explained. “We were doing a whole bunch of going hard, but doing the wrong things, which, at the end of the day gets right back at square zero.”
WHO IS THE LEADER?
Rivas played in all 34 games last season, but never started. And even though he’s a senior, Rivas hasn’t been one of the more vocal guys.
“I know we have the talent, we just have to put it together and we have to get out of our cocoon,” Moton said. “Right now we’re in a cocoon in terms of not being vocal, not wanting to step on the next man’s toes and who’s going to assume leadership of the team, so we’re going through that. It’s uncomfortable for me because I want to see someone step up and ascend to a different level of leadership. That’s the primary thing.”
Raasean Davis, a transfer from Kent State, sat out last season, but he was around Moton and knows what’s expected. When it’s time for something to be said, so far he’s been the one to speak up. Raasean, a 6-8, 260 pound forward from Chicago, averaged 2.6 points and 2.1 rebounds in 2015-16 for Kent State. Moton expects him to be productive in the MEAC, but would rather the voice of his team come from the point guard position.
“It’s real difficult for a team to be led by a post player,” Moton said. “I’m assuming one of our point guards will step up and separate themselves.”
NEW ROLE FOR RETURNING PLAYERS
Rivas, junior guard C.J. Wiggins, senior guard Marius McAllister, senior guard Raekwon Harney and senior guard John Guerra were all on the roster last season, with Rivas and Wiggins (6.4 minutes per game) seeing extended time. They all took a backseat to a team led by seven seniors. This year’s team is supposed to be theirs, but that’s new for them. So far, they aren’t sure how to handle that.
“They’re trying. It’s different for them because they are now evolving into a role of responsibility. Before it was everyone else telling them what to do,” Moton said. “They’re trying to evolve into that, but it’s a discomfort because they know they don’t know it all, and they know the new guys know they don’t know it all. Everyone is kind of walking on eggshells right now, just trying to figure it out.”
THE PLAYERS FINALLY EARN NCCU GEAR
At the Triangle Basketball Tip-Off Luncheon, Moton told the crowd his team hadn’t earned the right to wear any NCCU gear yet. They had to complete all of their offseason conditioning first.
Before the first official practice the entire team completed ‘Eagle Storm,’ which was capped off by hell week. Each player had to run 40 22’s. A 22 is a sprint down the court and back twice, which has to be done in 22 seconds. Once they get done, they have 22 seconds to rest and it’s back on the line to go again. Moton keeps a cone on the baseline, and if they don’t cross the cone, the 22’s don’t count, so they have to start over again. If they fail four times, they have to try again the next day. This group got it done the first time and Moton said they were the best to ever run it. That tells him a lot about this team.
“It’s amazing how much you can learn from someone during that run because it reveals their character,” Moton said. “Just from that we know who’s tough, who’s not tough, who we can depend on, who can get us out of an arena where it’s 15,000 people.”
FRESHMAN GUARD IMPRESSIVE
While most of the group is still trying to figure things out, Moton was impressed with freshman guard Reggie Gardner.
Gardner, who played his prep ball at famed DeMatha High in Baltimore, has had the most poise so far, according to Moton. The veteran coach gives credit to Gardner playing at DeMatha, historically, one of the best high school programs in the country.
“He’s already had the foundation and that makes it so much easier,” Moton said. “I don’t want to put too much on him too soon because he has a lot to learn, but understanding and I.Q., he has that.”