Over the next few days, you will fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket, and because NCAA Tournament brackets have to have upsets in them, you will pick somebody with a double-digit seed over somebody with a single-digit seed. Will you pick randomly? Will you pick based on mascot? Or will you pick smart? We're going to profile five low-majors that deserve more credit than Random Directional State University, and although we won't guarantee the upset -- or even a close game -- these are the no-names whose names you should know.
Up first: 14th-seeded North Carolina Central Eagles
Hello, friends! I am the keeper and protector of the Never-Made-the-Tourney Club, wherein all teams who have never made the NCAA Tournament are housed until they finally decide to make an NCAA Tournament. When they do, it's a mournful event -- our friend has left us -- but also a celebration. In past years, these teams have done good things in the tourney -- FGCU last year, Norfolk State the year before.
Cal Poly has no chance -- they went 13-19, 6-10 in Big West play, and will have to play a play-in game just to make the field of 64. They're dancing, but their dance will not be a particularly happy one.
NC Central, on the other hand, is a squad, and one that can do work. LET'S EXPLAIN THE EAGLES.
How good are they?
Most college hoops fans will meet NC Central with howls of derisive laughter at the fact that they are from the MEAC due to the conference's status, which pinged back-and-forth with the SWAC for the title of the nation's worst conference for a long time. (Why the two worst leagues in Division I hoops are the two comprised of historically black colleges and universities is a troubling question with a long answer.) Teams from the MEAC, even MEAC champions, are often bad.
Since Ken Pomeroy started ranking college basketball teams in 2003, only one MEAC team before this year had ranked in the top 150 of his final rankings. That was Hampton in 2009, and they finished 141st, which would still be enough to make it the last place team in virtually every major conference. Even the Norfolk State team that upset second-seeded Mizzou in 2012 finished 174th, and had entered the NCAA Tournament ranked 212th. Of the 13 teams in the conference this year, seven are ranked below 300, with five more checking in between 220 and 300.
NC Central is currently ranked No. 78. That's 60 spots higher than any team in the history of the conference since Pomeroy began his rankings, and 150 spots better than any other team in the league currently. After dropping their season opener to Florida A&M, the Eagles won their last 15 games of the conference season, and 12 of those games by double digits. They won their three conference games by an average of 28 points. Sure, NC Central is from the MEAC, but it pounded its league so violently, it's unfair to associate it with the typical caliber of a MEAC tourney squad.
NC Central's three games against tournament opponents this year went all right: a win over NC State in overtime, and losses to top-ranked Wichita State and Cincinnati by 11 and 14 points, respectively. Pomeroy gives NC Central a 27 percent chance at beating Iowa State.
What are they good at?
This squad is lockdown defensively -- it ranks No. 5 in the nation in both effective field goal percentage and turnover rate, meaning it's not only good at forcing the other team to commit turnovers, but it also manages to make the opposition take really bad shots when they don't turn the ball over. That's impressive, against any league.
Offensively, the Eagles grab 35.3 percent of their misses and have the 18th-best FTA/FGA in the nation, so they're solid at grabbing boards and getting fouled, even if regular old shots don't work out for them.
Who they got?
The star is senior guard Jeremy Ingram, the MEAC Player of the Year, who pulls off the rare feat of doubling up his closest teammate, averaging 20.6 points per game while next-leading scorer Jordan Parks averages just 10.6. The 6'3 guard from Charlotte can score in every conceivable way. He hits 38 percent from deep, but can handle the ball and finish through contact. Ingram drilled seven threes en route to 37 points to keep the game against Wichita State interesting, and had 29 in the conference championship game against Morgan State.
The guy who triggers the offense is senior point guard Emanuel Chapman, whose pass-first mentality borders on the absurd. Chapman almost averages more assists (6.5) than points (6.8), finishing sixth on the team in scoring despite playing 35 minutes per game.
Parks leads college hoops in field goal percentage, hitting 66.2 percent of his shots, as part of a big man tandem with Jay Copeland. Both 6'7 juniors are in the top 25 in the nation in offensive rebound rate, so they're the guys cleaning up Ingram's dirty work. Both have a knack for fouling, which explains why they're a tandem and not both starting.
Is Iowa State a good matchup?
The good news is that NCCU won't be overmatched in terms of size. It survives in a small conference without a player bigger than 6'7, so one would worry they'd be beasted on by a bigger first-round opponent. But Iowa State's tallest player is Georges Niang at 6'7, so pure verticality won't hurt them.
However, Iowa State probably leads the nation in body-averse skillsets. DeAndre Kane is a big point guard at 6'4. Niang's the tallest guy on the floor but he's a nifty playmaker. Dustin Hogue and Melvin Ejim are both 6'6, but used their athleticism and guile to get rebounds and buckets all year long during Big 12 play. NCCU might struggle to match up against the Cyclones, but that's true of literally every team in college basketball.
The scary thing for the Eagles is that some of the things they're great at, Iowa State does even better. Central forces a ton of turnovers, but Iowa State is very good with ball control, ranking ninth in the nation in turnover rate. Central crashes the offensive glass, 48th in the nation, but Iowa State virtually ignores the offensive boards and focuses on defensive rebounding, 38th in the nation. An upset is possible, but either NCCU will have to excel in an area they typically don't or Iowa State will have to falter.
Why should I love NC Central?
One image: head coach LeVelle Moton played for the Eagles when they were still in Division II. Here's his face when the seconds ticked down on their first trip to the dance, via Bubbaprog:
Wow, great matchup.
Since you can't "kill" a Cyclone, I think the question is whether you can evade it until it dies out.
I think NC Central wins here for two reasons, and I'll explain both.
First, we have an Eagle vs. a large storm. If the bird takes off, it's gonna die. It'll get blown off its path and probably into a building or piece of flying debris and die.
But yeah, it can evade. It can hunker down for the storm. If storms killed all birds in its path, there wouldn't be any birds.
Secondly: Iowa State's physical mascot is Cy, the Cardinal.
An Eagle would go to TOWN on a tiny little Cardinal.
I'm fine with all this, I think.
Are we assuming this is one on one in an open battle field? Can an eagle really dodge a cyclone without shelter options?
Y'all ain't never seen a bird find itself a crevasse to take shelter in?
I do want to point out Iowa State's weird bird-storm hybrid.
That's pretty terrifying.
Looks like the evil genie in Aladdin. The Jafar genie.
But then also a cardinal.
Factual inaccuracies: Cardinals don't have teeth, they have wings instead of arms/fists, and THEY'RE NOT TORNADOES
Other than that, spot on.
What do we need to know about NCCU to become bandwagoners?
From: Durham, North Carolina. So far as I can tell, they are the only college basketball team located in Durham. There is not another one. Don't look it up or think about it. Durham is home to one college basketball team, and it is NCCU.
Mascot info: Just the Eagles.
Hoops history: The Eagles actually have a very storied history at the DII level -- NBA Hall of Famer Sam Jones played there, as did Harold Hunter, who in 1950 became the first black man to sign an NBA contract, although he'd never play in the league. They even won a DII title in 1989. Although NCCU was a founding member of the MEAC, they were out of the league from 1979 to 2011, and were only eligible to make the NCAA tournament starting with the 2011-2012 season.
Peeps who went there: I'm sure some of these alumni are famous in their respective fields, but I'd like to focus on three specific former students who met at NC Central: Little Brother, an awesome hip-hop collective that you probably didn't hear of before it stopped making music. NCCU gets name-dropped in the third track off their incredible second album "The Minstrel Show," which features Phonte telling the story of how the group came to be:
Moton actually had producer 9th Wonder talk to the team earlier this season about his experience making over 1,000 beats and practically no money before a chance meeting with Jay-Z where Jay was impressed, gave him a track and said "make a beat out of this in 25 minutes"... and he did, getting it onto The Black Album. 9th compared it to "the NCAA Finals and you're down one at the free throw line" -- practice enough, and pressure doesn't exist. (Also in that 19-minute long video: an ex-convict, a former wife in an abusive relationship and now-paralyzed NBA player Rodney Rogers. It's called "The Real," and is Moton's way of preparing the team for hoops and life. H/T Andy Hutchins for tweeting it out the other night. )
I cannot strongly urge you to listen to LB enough -- funny, with preposterous beats. Gratuitous marching band video: Post wouldn't be complete without the Marching Sound Machine: