Maybe it’s time at North Carolina Central.
The Eagles’ campus in Durham is but 2 1/2 miles from Duke and all its banners, and not much farther from North Carolina. They live in a posh basketball neighborhood, where it’s easy to get lost in the shadows, especially since they have never made it past the front door of an NCAA tournament.
But that might be about to change. Even after an injury wave that so drained the numbers, the head coach had to suit up and practice.
North Carolina Central is 20-5 -- NC State was a notable early victim -- and has won 12 in a row to take a two-game lead in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Earlier in the season, the Eagles won three overtime games in 14 days. That can get a program dreaming big dreams.
“I don’t even think words can express what it would mean,” head coach LeVelle Moton said about a possible NCAA tournament bid. That goes double for him, since he played at North Carolina Central in the 1990s and rose to No. 3 on the school career scoring list. “When it’s your alma mater ... that passion will never die. It never goes away.”
North Carolina Central is among the Wishful Seven. A gaggle of college basketball teams who currently own at least a share of the lead in their conference or division. Four of them have never been invited to the NCAA tournament. It has been ages since the last berth for the other three.
Maybe it’s time at High Point.
The Panthers had a strong pedigree in NAIA and Division II. Tubby Smith is No. 7 on the school’s all-time scoring list. But they are still waiting for the first NCAA tournament berth since going Division I 15 years ago.
They have won nine of 11 to share the lead in the North Division of the Big South, while overcoming one of the tough-luck stories of the year. Allan Chaney, perhaps High Point’s best player, had to end his career in November because of a heart issue. Now he pursues his masters, while his team pursues a spot in the bracket.
High Point has a head coach who understands March, anyway. Scott Cherry was a team captain on North Carolina’s 1993 national champions, and an assistant coach for George Mason’s never-mind-the-odds trip to the Final Four in 2006.
Maybe it’s time at UC Irvine.
The Anteaters have moved into the lead in the Big West with a 17-9 record and chase their first NCAA tournament with the tallest player in college basketball.
That would be 7-6 Senegal freshman Mamadou Ndiaye, who swats shots like the rest of us swat gnats. He had 11 blocks in one game, 10 in another. He also made 24 consecutive field-goal attempts in January. Maybe the rim looks smaller from that altitude. Speaking of productive freshman foreign imports, UC Irvine is led in scoring by guard Luke Nelson, England’s contribution to the Big West race.
Even if the Anteater fans ever question the coach’s decisions, they have to admit he’s no dummy. Russell Turner graduated magna cum laude in English and economics from Hampden-Sydney, and broke the school’s career scoring record in between study sessions.
Maybe it’s time at Utah Valley.
Dick Hunsaker once coached Ball State to the Sweet 16. Now he’s trying to coach the Wolverines to their first NCAA tournament. This one is a family affair, since son Holton is Utah Valley’s leading scorer.
The Wolverines have edged into a half-game lead in their first season in the Western Athletic Conference at 9-2 in league play. Experience is a major Utah Valley plus. Ten players on the roster have gone on LDS missions, and Hunsaker starts three 24-year-old seniors, including Holton.
Maybe it’s time at Yale.
The Bulldogs’ last NCAA tournament trip was 1962, when a Harvard man named John Kennedy was in the White House. Their only postseason win in history was 12 years ago against Rutgers in the NIT.
Now they are tied with the Crimson for the Ivy League lead at 7-1, and just beat them in Cambridge. Yale’s starting lineup includes a forward (Matt Townsend) who has a 4.0 grade-point average and is a molecular and cellular developmental biology major. Another forward (Justin Sears), who graduated from the Academy for Information Technology, which sounds impressive as high schools go, but had no basketball team. And a guard (Armani Cotton), who has taught kids in Fiji how to read and served as a constituent liaison for Sen. Hillary Clinton.
With no league tournament, it is crunch time for 13-9 Yale. The Bulldogs face four consecutive road games, then a possible winner-gets-the-bid home showdown with Harvard.
Maybe it’s time at VMI.
Stonewall Jackson’s old school hasn’t been to the tournament since 1977, but once the 16-10 Keydets take off their military uniforms and get into their basketball gear, they’re one of the best shows anywhere.
At last count, they had broken 90 points 14 times and led the nation in scoring, at 89.6 a game. That includes a 108-104 four-overtime win against Gardner-Webb, when VMI hit late shots to force the first, third and fourth overtimes. Not that any of this is unusual. The Keydets have led the nation in scoring five of the past six years. But this time, it has earned them a tie at the top of the North division in the Big South with High Point.
Maybe it’s time at Mercer.
The Bears are the only team in the country to start the same five seniors every game. They upset Ole Miss on a 3-pointer at the buzzer, beat Seton Hall and lost by only three points to Texas.
Their last NCAA tournament appearance was 1985, but they’re 21-6 and 12-2 atop the Atlantic Sun. They’ll know a little more after Friday, when they visit second place Florida Gulf Coast to see how Dunk City is faring.
The league tournaments, and their fickle ways, will decide their NCAA fates, with the exception of Yale in the Ivy League. Nobody understands that better than North Carolina Central.
The Eagles went 15-1 in the MEAC last season, then lost their first league tournament game to North Carolina A&T. All those hopes dashed by one bad day.
“That’s the nature of the business,” Moton said. “It’s a shame you can throw a complete body of work for a season out the window because you didn’t play well for three days in March. But hopefully our guys have learned from that, and that fuels us. It had better put a fire in them. I know it did in my belly.”
This from a competitive man who sometimes gets glares from his wife because he won’t let his 4-year-old daughter win a race up the steps.
That privilege is for the high and mighty programs. Duke and North Carolina, for instance. “A gift and a curse,” Moton says of being in the sizable shadows of Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams.
“The good thing is, if you’re talking about programs, it’s two that would be on the Mount Rushmore of programs. If you’re taking about coaches, we have two that would be on the Mount Rushmore of coaching. They have established a blueprint to show us how to get it done. I use the analogy it’s almost I’m like the new businessman in town, and I have Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs five and 10 miles away. I’m a fool if I don’t go and try to tap into their ideas.
“That’s the gift. The curse is you can get swallowed up in that limelight. You’re always feeling like you’re fighting for respect amongst your community, amongst your city, amongst your state, just to make sure people understand what the acronym NCCU stands for. But it’s been great, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,”
The Eagles are healthier now, and Moton no longer has to practice. “I looked pretty good, it was almost like my old self in the 90s,” he said. But? “When I got tired, it was a wrap. We had a few more water breaks than usual.”
Now they brace for March, to see if there is a big dance to attend, at long last.
They’re not alone.