North Carolina Central will open the 2018 MEAC tournament Tuesday night in Norfolk, Va. The Eagles, the No. 6 seed, will take on No. 11 seed Coppin State at 6:30 p.m.
NCCU (15-15, 9-7) defeated Coppin State (5-26, 5-11) 81-61 on Jan. 13 in Durham. The Eagles, the defending tournament champions, ended the regular season on a high, upsetting rival North Carolina A&T, 70-59, on March 1.
N.C. Central, which went 3-5 in February, will hope that opening March with a win is a good sign heading into the MEAC tournament.
“To me it’s all about winning the day,” junior guard John Guerra said. “The next game is the most important game, only because it’s the next game. Right now it’s a one game season.”
Guerra, along with classmate C.J. Wiggins and seniors Pablo Rivas and Marius McAllister, are the only players on the roster who have MEAC tournament experience, with Rivas, who came off the bench last season, seeing the most time a season ago. Wiggins has started 19 career games for the Eagles, his first start ever coming in the MEAC tournament as a freshman.
In two trips to the tournament, Wiggins has played a total of 67 minutes, scoring 18 points in four games. Guerra has seven total minutes of tournament time in two games, while Rivas played 47 minutes in three games last season, averaging six points a game. The Eagles, who went from one of the oldest teams in the country last season (five redshirt seniors in starting lineup, two off the bench) to one of the youngest in the MEAC this year (two true freshman starters), will lean heavily on the players who have been there before.
Wiggins said switching from regular season to tournament mode starts in practice.
“Every possession counts in the tournament, literally every possession coming down on defense and every possession on offense,” Wiggins said. “We have to make an emphasis on that each day at practice until we get to the tournament.”
We haven’t been as tough as we needed to be, and that’s me, but one thing as a coach you have so much confidence in yourself and your abilities, but the reality is you can’t give them toughness.
N.C. Central coach Levelle Moton
N.C. Central coach Levelle Moton compares the tournament to working out on a treadmill – whoever has the best endurance over the course of four days will be the last team standing. This year, if they want to be the last team standing on Saturday, they have to win four straight games, something they’ve never done in the tournament. From Dec. 14-Jan. 13, the Eagles had a six-game winning streak, their best run of the season. The question is, can this current NCCU roster stay on the treadmill?
“I would like to say yes, but that remains to be seen,” Moton said. “Toughness has been an issue. We haven’t been as tough as we needed to be, and that’s me, but one thing as a coach you have so much confidence in yourself and your abilities, but the reality is you can’t give them toughness. You can diagram (plays), but toughness is just man on man. I thought we were tough (against A&T), but that’s not going to cut it for Norfolk. There are going to be home crowds against us, the odds are stacked against you, it won’t be your home crowd cheering for you. It’s real and it’s in foreign territory and you just have to grind it out. Things aren’t going to go your way, adversity is going to set in and we have to respond and that’s the team that’s going to be victorious.”
The Eagles went 3-13 on the road this season in conference play. Guerra feels like winning the regular-season finale will provide the right formula do get rolling this time of the year.
“It’s about getting positive momentum going into the tournament,” Guerra said. “You see it every year, a team gets hot and they make a run, that’s what we are trying to do. The season didn’t go the way we wanted, but the great news is we still have the opportunity to win the day going forward and to make a big run.”
Regardless of being the No. 6 seed, Moton knows the Eagles will still have a huge target on their backs. They dominated the league last season and have won multiple regular-season and tournament titles since becoming a full time MEAC member in 2010. Moton said neutral site fans have two teams they root for: There team and whoever is playing North Carolina Central.
“They’ll come to cheer against us,” Moton said. “I love that, I love being the villain. Hopefully that can fuel us because we understand what is at stake.”