College basketball is king in North Carolina and the Triangle is its throne. Been that way since Everett Case came down to Raleigh from Indiana just after World War II. Everyone knows the usual suspects: North Carolina State, North Carolina and Duke. Rarely a year has gone by in the last half-century, that at least one of these schools has not been in the hunt for a national title.
This year, however, the hottest team in the Triangle is in Durham, but it’s not Duke. It’s North Carolina Central. The historically black college has won 10 games in a row. It is also in the hunt for its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in just its second year of conference title eligibility.
Not bad for a program that only won 15 games in three seasons after migrating to Division I prior to the 2006-2007 season.
“We have an analogy that we use. It’s like we’re building a $10 million mansion,” NCCU coach Levelle Moton said prior to NCCU’s 51-43 win over Florida A&M on Saturday. “The way to do that is to just lay one brick. If you do that over the course of time, you’ll look up and you’ll have a mansion.”
The Eagles have been downright dominant during their current winning streak. Starting with a Jan. 2 win over Winthrop, they have beaten their opponents by 20.5 points per game. The streak has propelled their record to 16-7, and most of those losses came in early-season money games most small programs play to fund their programs. They shoot nearly 48 percent from the field while holding opponents under 40 percent. They remain unbeaten in the MEAC, and are, currently, in second place behind one of last year’s Cinderella teams, Norfolk State.
“In the MEAC, we’re like the Black Duke,” he said. “Other schools look at North Carolina Central the way that teams in the ACC look at Duke.”
His comments struck a nerve on Internet message boards, drawing criticism from many in the HBCU sports community. Some criticized him for attempting to legitimize his program on the back of an established program. Others felt his comments were premature for a program that has yet to win any Divison I national championships or even make it to the tournament. Still, Moton isn’t backing down from his statement. He did say, however, that people may have misinterpreted it.
“I know we don’t have any Division I Championships or Final Fours, but the dislike we receive on the road is like no other in this conference, so there has to be some hatred involved,” he said. “Until they start treating us a little nicer, I’m going to stick to that.”
Though they may be new to Division I basketball, North Carolina Central has a long and storied basketball legacy. Back in 1944, players from NCCU and Duke played in an un-sanctioned basketball game that was technically illegal in the Jim Crow South . Basketball Hall of Famer and fast-break innovator John McLendon coached at NCCU (then known as North Carolina College for Negroes) during the 1940s and 1950s. Future Boston Celtic great Sam Jones honed his game there, in the 1950s. NCCU also won a Division II basketball title in 1989.
Make no mistake about it, the MEAC is not the ACC or Big East, but the strides the program has made since Moton took over are pretty remarkable. The former All-CIAA guard and high school coach was handed the reigns to his alma mater after just two seasons as an assistant at NCCU, inheriting a team that had won only eight games its first two seasons as a Division I independent. The team has improved its record in each of his four seasons, from seven wins in 2009-2010 to 17 last season.
The secret is starting to get out, though. Former Duke star and current NBA scout Gene Banks told the Durham Herald-Sun that he has been impressed with the program’s transformation under Moton.
“I’ve always liked him as a player. He’s just smart, intelligent, worked hard,” Banks said. “Then to find out and watch what he’s done with this program, I’m not just impressed but I’m just elated to see what he’s done.”
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Moton said of the program’s transition. “If it was easy, there would be no other divisions because everyone would make it. We had a realistic game plan and a realistic timeline.”
The current roster includes former JUCO star Stanton Kidd (16 ppg), Oklahoma transfer Ray Willis (13 ppg) and Jeremy Ingram, a Moton recruit who leads the team in scoring at 15.5 points per game. Perhaps the most recognizable name on the court for NCCU is freshman walk-on Rayshawn King. Not only has his storied battle with leukemia garnered national attention, Moton said his effort in practice has provided extra motivation for his team, noting that, “when teammates look at him and see the trials and tribulations that he has overcome, they can’t help but go hard.”
Moton is both a player’s coach, and a task master. He has a youthful disposition, not only due to his age but also his experience as a middle school teacher and high school coach prior to returning to NCCU. Moton explained that his practices are high energy, and physically demanding. But that’s what you’d expect from someone who helped train NBA players such as Chris Paul, Vince Carter and Rasheed Wallace.
“If you come to our practices, you might think we’re crazy. I’m a very demanding coach,” he said. “I look at you and tell you how I feel. I’m probably not the easiest coach to play for from the outside looking in.”
Six seasons into its Division I life, North Carolina Central could very well be participating in March Madness for the first time in the program’s history. And while Moton makes it clear that his focus is on getting his team to play one game at a time, he is also concerned with taking care of his program’s legacy, as well as building for its future.
“It’s almost like John McLendon gave me the key to his car,” he said. “I just want to drive the car without wrecking it.”