It’s easy to be Tito Jackson when the greatest performer of all time is out in front.
With the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, doing his thing, it didn’t matter who was behind him - his brothers were going to look brilliant since all eyes were on Michael. But what happens when Tito is thrown into the forefront?
That’s the analogy North Carolina Central head coach LeVelle Moton used when talking about his freshman back court duo of point guard Jordan Perkins and shooting guard Reggie Gardner, a pair of players who earlier in the year Moton said drove him crazy.
Last season, when the Eagles played in the NCAA First Four in Dayton, Moton had seven seniors in his rotation. This time around his starting five includes the two rookies and one walk-on.
Usually teams with the best guard play make a run in the tournament. More times than not, those guards are juniors and seniors, players with experience. Moton won’t have that luxury when the Eagles (19-15) take on Texas Southern (15-19) in the First Four on Wednesday at at 6:40 p.m.
On the biggest stage, his young guys can’t depend on their big brother to carry the show. They’ll have to see how they react when they are front and center. To Moton, that’s easier said than done.
“It’s one thing to be Tito Jackson, then it’s one thing to be Tito Jackson solo,” Moton said. “That’s a different type thing. No disrespect to Tito, but when you’re playing the guitar back there, and you got that guy with the little Afro (Michael) performing, life is a little easier. They were part of those Jackson Five teams where all they had to do was play the guitar. Now we’re asking them to go out there and do what Michael did.”
In high school, Perkins was on one the best teams in the nation at Greensboro Day, where he played for a national championship his senior season. But like Moton said, he was part of a talented roster.
Gardner, who's from Bowie, Md., played on a high school team so talented he never started a game. But now Moton is depending on the pair, and have been asked to get the team through March, starting with the Tigers, who feature junior Derrick Bruce, and graduate senior Donte’ Clark in the back court.
Gardner was inserted into the starting lineup from day one, Perkins took over the job 10 games into the season. Garnder and Perkins had their ups and downs, as any freshman would, but ended the year as MEAC All-Rookie team selections. Gardner averages 11 points per game, and is one of the top three-point shooters on the team (32 percent).
Perkins leads the team in assists, but can be erratic at times, leading the team in turnovers.
But Moton has trusted the duo enough to start a combined 58 games, and here they are, leading the Eagles back into the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. Last season, Moton felt like the stage was too big for his group of seniors, so what can he expect with an even younger team this time around?
“Our freshman, not knowing is probably the best thing for them,” Moton said.
Perkins, who played in the Dick’s High School National tournament as a senior, said he came out on the floor at UD Arena in Dayton on and took in all the sites and sounds before the Eagles' open practice on Tuesday. But once the ball is thrown up in Wednesday's game, it’s just basketball.
“When I first got here I was like ‘wow, this is March Madness,’” Perkins said. “I grew up watching it on television. Never imagined I’d be here. I’m happy to be here, everyone doesn’t get this chance so I’m happy to get it as a freshman.”
In the MEAC title game against Hampton, Perkins and Gardner combined for 24 points. On the court, Perkins, naturally as the point guard, is the vocal one. Gardner has a very quiet demeanor, but both, Moton said, have a swagger to them you typically don’t see from first year players.
“Just confidence,” Gardner said. “Coach gives us confidence to go out there and play, our teammates believe in us, that’s where it comes from.”
Gardner scored 13 points in his first college game, his first ever start and a 65-55 loss to University of Illinois-Chicago, and said that was the big moment that gave him a confidence boost. When they are playing well, the Eagles have been successful. Perkins is usually the distributor, but NCCU is 9-2 when they both score in double digits.
The rookies are roommates on campus and on the road, and Perkins said he and Gardner have the best communication on the court because of their chemistry off of it. Chemistry is one thing, but cutting down on freshmen mistakes will be critical.
“Jordan is fearless,” Moton said. “He’s going to make some freshman mistakes, but he’s fearless. Reggie, I have to get some of Jordan’s fearlessness in him and get him to understand that even if his shot is not falling he can still help us on this basketball floor.”