And with all due respect to the Terrapins that lurk just across the state line, Delaware State's men's basketball teams have proved themselves fearsome turtles indeed. Last year's Hornets milked every possible second out of the 35-second clock, averaging a mere 58 possessions per game (11 short of the national median). Only four teams played at slower rates, all of which were proponents of Princeton's slowdown system.
But DSU coach Greg Jackson is no Tigerball evangelist. There are no backdoor cuts or centers-as-point-guards here. Just as the old animal tale was written to wrap an important lesson in a tale kids can understand, this is all about teaching.
"Our style is just like the game of life," Jackson said. "If you're disciplined and patient in life, you're going to have success. I've been able to translate the game of life to my basketball philosophy, which is to be disciplined and patient on the court. And at some point in life, you have to slow down."
Delaware State's mock turtles won 21 races last year as they set a school record for victories and notched a best-ever 16-2 conference mark. But Jackson's squad wasn't able to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, where it had fallen to Duke by only nine in 2005 (a rare single-digit first-round win for the Blue Devils). Hampton, the only MEAC team that had success in dictating tempo against DSU last season, won by four in the title game, in which the Hornets hit a fatally low 39 percent of their shots. Unfortunately, tortoises don't have much margin for error.
Because of the NCAA's new policy of guaranteeing all regular-season champions a place in the national postseason, the Hornets were asked to the National Invitation Tournament. They'd need extra changes of clothes for the trip -- the NIT legends committee sent them more than 2,300 miles from home to play another champion that hadn't sealed the deal in the conference tourney: Northern Arizona of the Big Sky.
"It was like being on a roller coaster," Jackson said of that mid-March stretch. "We came back from an adverse situation when we lost to Hampton, and we had to go a long way for a basketball game. It said a lot about the character of these kids, this coaching staff and this school that we were able to not only participate in that game but that we were able to win it."
Indeed, the opening-round NIT game was classic Delaware State basketball. The Hornets forced the Lumberjacks (the second-quickest team in their conference) to play slow-ball in a 25-22 first half, weathered a late run and escaped with a 58-53 decision -- the first postseason victory in school history. They overcame a whopping 10-rebound deficit with an eight-turnover advantage, coughing up the ball only 12 times.
The Hornets' long road ended three days later at Louisville's Freedom Hall, where an 18-win Cardinals team was gearing up to convert an NCAA miss into what would be a run to the NIT semifinals. Rick Pitino's crew stormed to a 12-0 lead on the way to a 17-point win, holding DSU to another subpar shooting night (41 percent). The Hornets went home to Dover to contemplate their season, the season ahead and the science of slow.
"The personnel we've had for the past three or four years has dictated that we are this way, but we'll definitely stick with our same philosophy," Jackson said. "This style has allowed us not only to win basketball games but to win most of the games we play. But I think the kids we're bringing in this year will allow us to get out in transition better and let us score some easy buckets."
A tortoise capable of bunnylike bursts of speed? The rest of the league had better watch out.
Good sign: Life in the MEAC usually means spending November and December on the road, playing top-ranked opponents and picking up five-figure guarantee-game checks. There are bills to pay back home, after all.
Three teams -- Morgan State, North Carolina A&T and Coppin State -- went oh-fer in out-of-conference play last season, but despite the league's financial realities, three MEAC teams wound up with overall marks of .500 or better, thanks in large part to the fact that seven of the conference's 11 teams finished with even or positive records in the conference. Del-State highlighted that list, painting over a 2-10 record in the 2005 portion of the schedule with a masterful nine-game January winning streak on its way to 21 victories.
But the feel-good story of the year in the MEAC was Bethune-Cookman. After 29 straight losing seasons for the Wildcats, Clifford Reed led his team to a 15-15 overall record highlighted by a five-game run in February. The win streak culminated in a thrilling 72-71 home win over Delaware State, one settled by a Sam Barber corkscrew layup with two seconds left.
"We are trying to get to the level that Hampton and Delaware State are at with having a program," Reed told the media after BCC's quarterfinal exit at the MEAC tourney. "Right now, we have a team ... we are building a program, and that takes time. This was certainly the foundation."
Safe bet: After the success of last season's conference tournament, you can bet the MEAC won't be uprooting from Raleigh anytime soon.
The first two MEAC elimination events (in 1972 and '73) took place in the hallowed halls of Duke's Cameron Indoor, and nearby Greensboro has held 10 of them, but it has been a traveling road show for much of its existence, making stops in places such as Philadelphia, Tallahassee and, most recently, Richmond. With the tourney's triumphant move into Raleigh's gleaming RBC Center, you might say it has returned home to its roots.
"It was great," commissioner Dennis Thomas said. "It worked out well for us; the [RBC Center] was very accommodating for everything we wanted to do. The fans enjoyed it; there was a lot of energy; and we had a much larger attendance than we had the previous year in Richmond. We think it's going to continue to improve."
Although many conferences put on bland corporate-sponsored fan fairs to supplement their March tourney-going experiences, the MEAC doesn't waste a second of its week in the sun. After years of having to share Richmond with the CAA, the league put on an explosion of entertainment for the whole family in 2006. In addition to a fashion show and a live taping of "Showtime at the Apollo," there were comedy nights, even an old-school rap concert featuring Doug E. Fresh. How does the MEAC plan to top that in 2007?
"We have some tricks up our sleeves," Thomas chuckled. "That I promise you."
One escapee from Thomas' jacket cuff is the news that the league is bolstering its year-round presence in central North Carolina. In 2007-08, Winston-Salem State will join as a full member, and it will be eligible for conference and NCAA postseason play as early as 2010-11. We can only hope noted alum Stephen A. Smith will be as vocal about the Rams' chances to win the MEAC basketball title as he is about Terrell Owens and the New York Knicks.
Red flag: Unfortunately, the first thing a foundation carves out is a basement. Bethune-Cookman will face personnel-related obstacles this season in its quest to continue the progress of its 2005-06 campaign, as a senior exodus means the Wildcats will be without 89 percent of last season's scoring and 90 percent of their rebounding, figures that rank among the highest percentage losses in D-I. As such, a team that has never made the NCAA Tournament might have to wait a while longer.
While BCC is losing eight seniors, Florida A&M loses six, including one of its three double-figure scorers, and half of its scoring. Technically, the Rattlers are the last team from this conference to win at the NCAA Tournament, thrashing 2004 Patriot League champion Lehigh in that year's so-called play-in game. But the core of that team has dissipated, and coach Mike Gillespie will try to restock with a trio of Florida junior college prospects.
But the real red flag here is the league's RPI. It hit a relative high of 27 (of 31 conferences) in 2001, a figure that allowed a 26-7 Hampton squad to escape the inaugural opening-round game and set the stage for the Pirates' stunning 15-over-2 victory over Iowa State. For the past three years, though, the two Division I conferences made up of historically black colleges have taken turns holding up the bottom of the RPI table -- fortunately for the MEAC, it was the SWAC's turn last season.
"You get more respect by being competitive and beating people," commissioner Thomas said. "That's what we have to do. When we line up against the Big East, the Big Ten, Conference USA, all the rest, we have to be competitive and we've got to win. In athletics, you gotta beat people."
Worth watching: A 7-22 season might sound like a disaster, but when it follows a 2-26 campaign, it's a huge step forward.
The University of Maryland-Eastern Shore more than tripled its overall win total from 2004-05 and quadrupled its conference victories with four. And the school could have claimed a conference postseason win if not for an officiating gaffe: With the Fighting Hawks down 73-71 in the waning moments of their first-round game with Norfolk State, point guard Jesse Brooks stole an inbound pass and put up a long-bomb attempt, drawing contact as time expired. The next day, the conference admitted the official had simply missed the foul, one that would have put Brooks on the line for three shots.
"I have no comment on that," UMES coach Larry Lessett said when asked about the incident. "The kids recovered quickly from it, though. You never like to lose, but we're focused on where we're going, not where we've been."
Three Fighting Hawks guards made the MEAC's all-rookie team (Brooks, 6-2 shooter Ed Tyson and 6-3 swing Troy Jackson), a trio that averaged 30.2 points collectively. Jackson is transferring out of Princess Anne, but UMES will still have a solid sophomore backcourt. And with 6-9 walking double-double Tim Parham (14.0 ppg, 10.3 rpg) plying his trade in the NBA summer leagues, Lessett is Balkanizing his front line in preparation for the 2006-07 campaign (but in a good way).
Next season's UMES starting five should feature two Serbians. Quick 6-10 Aleksandar Popovic -- who can play small forward if needed, Lessett says -- will be asked to clean a lot of glass. Then there's small forward Milutin Mirjacic, who averaged 13 and eight for the Formiza Uzice club team. The coach already is speaking fondly of Mirjacic, even if he's still uncomfortable pronouncing his name.
"We just call him Milo," Lessett said. "He's like John Havlicek with his skill and toughness. He comes in with a lot of experience."
Things to watch
Bethune-Cookman: The crowning achievement for last year's senior-laden squad was a 75-68 overtime win at South Florida on Dec. 27. So what if USF went on to go 1-14 in its conference? The MEAC had defeated the Big East.
Coppin State: November and December in the MEAC are long months, but the road for Coppin State was longest of all. The Eagles didn't enjoy a home game until Jan. 14, but Ron "Fang" Mitchell devised a way to withstand the grind. After the normally up-tempo Eagles averaged 76.8 possessions per contest in November, they slowed it down to a slogging 53.3 the next month, a move that was much more Coppin State conservation than Delaware State deliberate. On Dec. 18, Illinois fans booed CSC off the floor after a 62-41 grind (Coppin: 57 possessions). But when it mattered most, the Eagles took seven of their first nine league games and finished the regular season 12-6.
Delaware State: It's not something that happens in this league all that often, but leading scorer Jahsha Bluntt (14.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg in 2005-06) decided to test the NBA draft waters this spring. The 6-6 forward did so after reportedly seeing his name on an Internet mock draft that had him going 52nd to the Clippers. But after he wasn't invited to the predraft camp in Orlando or called by any NBA teams for workouts, he withdrew his name. He'll take any remaining frustration out on the rest of the MEAC in his senior season.
Florida A&M: Last season's Rattlers led the conference in field goal percentage (43.6 percent). Even though their numbers from long distance weren't that good (31 percent), they made their fair share of three-point plays. Free-throw production is a stat that measures free throws made divided by field goals attempted, and FAMU rated a 30.4, best in the league and 19th in Division I.
Hampton: The Pirates' 2001 NCAA shocker is becoming a distant memory, even more so now that the coaching lineage has been snapped. Bobby Collins, an assistant when Steve Merfeld did his nationally televised crazy dance five years ago, resigned under pressure days after Hampton's opening-round loss, even though he had converted a MEAC six-seed into NCAA Tournament gold. Ex-Clemson assistant Kevin Nickelberry will take it from here.
Howard: The Bison overcame an atrocious 1-12 start in league play to take five of six, a run that included a mini-upset over North Carolina A&T in the tourney's 8-9 game. That quintet of victories in a two-week stretch was as many wins as Howard earned in its entire 2004-05 season. With last year's leading scorer Darryl Hudson (12.1 ppg) returning as a senior, Howard's hope is that the momentum continues.
Maryland-Eastern Shore: UMES was the most up-tempo team in the league last year (74.2 possessions per 40 minutes, 32nd nationally). Although the Hawks' turnover rate wasn't spectacular (22.9 percent, sixth in the MEAC), they didn't suffer from the catastrophic ballhandling woes that usually plague jackrabbit packs at this level. The biggest problem was scoring, as UMES ended up as one of the 16 D-I teams that couldn't hit 40 percent of its shots. If that improves, so do the Hawks.
Morgan State: Todd Bozeman recruited Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray for Cal, but he admitted in 1997 that he had given a recruit's family $30,000 and was slapped with an eight-year "show-cause" ban by the NCAA. Now that he has done his time, he'll get his second chance in north Baltimore. His mission, which he has chosen to accept, is to rebuild what was by far the least efficient offense in the country last year (a paltry .767 points per possession).
Norfolk State: The MEAC tournament is, without a doubt, the least predictable bracket in Division I. Not only did Hampton streak to glory out of the No. 6 seed but the Spartans slipped into the semis with a No. 7 after a 10-8 regular season, knocking off second-seeded Coppin in the process. Norfolk will return star junior guard Tony Murphy, a converted point who took over the team's offense as a two and averaged 15.6 points and 13.8 shots per game as a sophomore.
North Carolina A&T: The Aggies slogged through their second consecutive six-win season, but there's hope in Greensboro: All four of N.C. A&T's double-figure scorers return, highlighted by Jason Wills (14.7 ppg). With 7.1 rpg last season, Wills also is the MEAC's returning leading rebounder.
South Carolina State: Little Orangeburg, S.C., couldn't escape the falling dominoes of the Kelvin Sampson hire at Indiana. In late May, head coach Ben Betts left town to sit at Jeff Capel's side on OU's revamped bench, and former S.C. State player and assistant Jamal Brown left Tennessee State to lead the Bulldogs. Brown will inherit one of the best pure shooters in the MEAC: 6-3 swingman Brian Mason, who led the team with 14.3 ppg on 47.9 percent shooting last season.
Delaware State will reclaim its crown -- so says Joe Lunardi in his early look at the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
* NCAA Tournament
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.