A tagline to summarize North Carolina Central’s 2018-19 season could be 3AC.
For the third consecutive year, the Eagles won the MEAC Tournament to secure the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth—and did so in especially dramatic fashion.
NCCU rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit against regular-season MEAC champion Norfolk State, holding the Spartans to just 15 points after intermission.
“Not many teams can say they've been [to the NCAA Tournament] three years in a row,” Zacarry Douglas said at NCCU’s March 19 press conference.
Three’s indeed a magic number for North Carolina Central basketball. But as the Eagles face North Dakota State, surprise winner of the Summit League Tournament, another single digit can redefine success for the program: one.
One has various significance for both this NCCU team, and Eagles basketball history. Beating North Dakota State in Dayton during Wednesday’s First Four matchup would send NCCU onto Columbia, South Carolina, for a Friday contest against overall No. 1 seed Duke.
Additionally, a victory Wednesday would put a hugely significant 1 in the Eagles’ all-time NCAA Tournament win column.
This marks the program’s fourth tournament all-time, and third appearance in the First Four. The Eagles are 0-3, losing to Iowa State in 2014; falling just short versus UC Davis in 2017; and sputtering to a 64-46 loss last season versus Texas Southern.
Each of the four appearances have come under coach LeVelle Moton, an NCCU alum and Eagles star during the program’s Division II glory days. He was on the 1992-93 team that reached the DII Elite Eight.
As both a winning player and an NCCU graduate, Moton—now a successful coach—touted what the NCAA Tournament means during Tuesday’s press conference.
“It's a wonderful opportunity, not only for our program but just our university,” he said. “We have an incredible university. And oftentimes basketball is considered the front porch to allow others to come in and see the different programs and the type of education and the law degrees that we have to offer as well.”
Moving on in the Tournament opens that window to the public even further, especially when it means a game against the most high-profile program in the nation. A hypothetical Duke matchup is predicated on landing that elusive first win.
Beating North Dakota State comes down to NCCU replicating the defensive intensity that stymied Norfolk State.
North Dakota State comes into the First Four ranked No. 15 in the nation in point distribution via 3-pointers, per KenPom.com. Six Bison—Vinnie Shahid, Rocky Kreuser, Jared Samuelson, Tyree Eady, Tyson Ward and Cameron Hunter—attempted at least 66 3-pointers in the regular season.
“I understand they shoot them,” Douglas said during Tuesday’s press conference. “But if we follow the game plan, we'll be okay.”
Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist in southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.