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The t-shirts—gold with “Cut The Net” in green block lettering—were printed over the summer. That’s when Norfolk State coach Robert Jones said he saw the potential for something special in the 2018-19 Spartans.
“I liked the talent we had, I liked the depth we had,” Jones said. “A lot of the guys we had we were new and had to be taught and buy into what we were doing. But we had enough raw talent to be in the position in we’re in now as regular-season champs, and now in the final four of the MEAC Tournament.”
No special order necessary in the winter, once the wins began piling up and Norfolk State neared its first MEAC regular-season championship since the 2012-13 season. And the shirts finally came out on March 2 when, in a 72-38 rout of Coppin State, the Spartans sealed the title.
A regular-season MEAC crown is one goal of this year’s Norfolk State Spartans met. They reached another milestone with their 20th win of the campaign, which came in Wednesday’s MEAC Tournament matchup against South Carolina State.
But achieving that preseason goal of 20 wins didn’t come easily. Norfolk State kicked off its postseason in a fashion befitting March.
Behind Nic Thomas’ 30 points, the Spartans rallied from an early hole to win a 78-73 decision. The tournament resumes for NSU on Friday against Howard, which defeated Bethune-Cookman in its Thursday-night quarterfinal matchup.
While the champion Spartans came into the MEAC Tournament the team to beat, Jones touched on an important point that’s the bedrock of college basketball at this time of year.
“Tournaments are based on matchups; seeding goes out the window,” he said.
Norfolk State knows only too well the reality of seeding. The Spartans lost just twice in regular-season MEAC play: to fourth-seeded Howard and fifth-seeded Bethune-Cookman.
And Jones himself as experienced it while at Norfolk State. An assistant on the 2011-12 staff, he was there for the Spartans’ historic upset of Missouri in the NCAA Tournament.
Another challenge of the postseason is quick turnaround between games. The MEAC Tournament is structured in such a way that the top two seeds—Norfolk State and North Carolina A&T—had staggered byes in the early rounds.
But that, too, presents unique challenges not typical of the regular season.
“We’re big on preparation, and that’s the hardest thing to deal with. Take tonight for example: We have a day off in theory, but we’re not going to know our opponent until 10:30,” Jones said. “We have to do everything tomorrow morning—from shootaround, to film—condescend into a two-hour session.
“So, hopefully, you can rely on the principles you had all year,” he added.
Among the principles that carried Norfolk State to a MEAC championship: balance. Jones often played a deep rotation, with six players averaging between 8.2 and 15.1 points per game.
The Spartans already deviated from the script early in March, going to the explosive Thomas with his soft 3-point touch often (5-of-10 from deep on Wednesday, better than 40 percent on the season).
Each new day of this particular month on the basketball calendar brings a new challenge, and Jones hopes what worked for Norfolk State in the regular season continues in the postseason.
“Hopefully [depth] will be our advantage down the stretch, that we can plug in multiple guys who can come in and shoot for us,” he said.
Norfolk State has not been back to the NCAA Tournament since 2012, though it is a postseason fixture. The Spartans have CIT appearances from 2014 through 2017, and an NIT berth in 2013. They are guaranteed to continue their campaign beyond the MEAC Tournament this year, earning an automatic NIT berth by virtue of the regular-season championship.
It’s a nice honor to have lined up, but Norfolk State does not want to let those t-shirts printed over the summer go without getting some more use.
“We cut the first net,” Jones said. “There are still a couple more we want to cut.”
Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist in southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.