Duke, UNC and NCSU basketball fans aren’t the only ones expecting a Sweet 16 run

LeVelle Moton, N.C. Central coach, celebrates its 72-49 win over Bethune-Cookman to win the MEAC Tournament in 2015.
LeVelle Moton, N.C. Central coach, celebrates its 72-49 win over Bethune-Cookman to win the MEAC Tournament in 2015.

One of LeVelle Moton’s favorite sayings is “the standard is the standard.”

Since returning to coach his alma mater in 2009, Moton’s standards at N.C. Central have included winning championships. Under Moton, the Eagles have won three MEAC regular-season titles and two MEAC tournament titles (2013-14, 2016-17), each followed by a trip to the NCAA tournament.

The standard never changes, even if the faces do. Moton each season welcomes a fresh crop of transfers, and this year’s team is no different. Moton will break in seven new players to replace the seven seniors he lost from last season’s squad.

But no matter who puts on that NCCU uniform, the expectations are the same. Just like Moton, Eagles fans expect conference championships and trips to the NCAA tournament.

“I had a fan I saw in Harris Teeter and they said ‘can you get to the Sweet 16 this year?’ ” Moton said during his media day recently. “I don’t know what Sweet 16 they were talking about, but that’s my goal, too. If they like it, I love it. I like the expectations. I definitely like it on this end because I’ve been on the other end, it’s no fun.”

Moton’s first year as the head coach in Durham he won seven games, and the team went 0-16 on the road. The following year the team broke even, finishing 15-15 overall. The 2011-12 season, their first in the MEAC, the Eagles finished 17-15 in their first winning season in five years. That raised the bar, which was set low, very low, when Moton took over.

“It’s interesting because when I first got the job I think we had won two games the previous year,” Moton said. “Everybody said just win three games. I was like ‘all right, cool.’ Then the following year we were going into our true independence and people were saying just try to be .500. Then we went into the MEAC and it was just try to be .500 and beat A&T one time, and now it’s Sweet 16.”

Getting to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament isn’t impossible for a mid-major program like N.C. Central, but it is rare. San Diego State, of the Mountain West Conference, was the last mid-major to make it that far in the tournament back in 2014. No MEAC team has ever made it to the round of 16. Norfolk State was the last MEAC team to win an NCAA tournament game, upsetting second-seeded Missouri, 86-84, in 2012, only the fifth time a No. 15 seed knocked off a No. 2 seed.

Moton is 0-2 in NCAA tournament appearances, falling to No. 3 Iowa State, 93-75, in 2014 and to University of California-Davis, 67-63, in the First Four game last season in Dayton. The Eagles lost to Miami 75-71 in the first round of the NIT in 2015.

These days, a MEAC tournament title and NCAA tournament trips are expected from Moton, who has an overall record of 152-103 in eight seasons. The Eagles were picked to finished third in the MEAC this year, behind Morgan State and Norfolk State, but like Moton says, the standard is the standard.

“It’s OK when winning is just enough, then you get to another level,” Moton said. “Then it’s, when are you going to beat Duke? When are you going to beat Carolina? And they (the fans) are dead serious. And I’m dead serious about it, I like that expectation, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

LeVelle Moton talks about getting together with area coaches and why it's so rare.

Jonas Pope IV: 919-419-7001, @JEPopeIV