NC A&T finally give fans something to cheer about

NC A&T riding fan supportWills AP Photo/Karl DeBlakerJason Wills is one of the keys in NC A&T's title drive.
Once upon a time, basketball games in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference were so overwhelmingly popular that they were moved from campus gyms to city arenas, as tens of thousands of fans clamored for a peek at players with nicknames like "The Pencil" and "The Human Eraser" and to root on teams like UMES' "Black Beatles."

Three decades have passed since the conference's Division II days of distinction; in the 26 years since the MEAC was granted an auto bid to the Big Dance, the league has languished at the bottom of Division I's RPI table. These days, most regular-season contests play out before thousands of vacant seats, desperate hype men with microphones exhorting tiny crowds to "make some noise."

But you can find a reflected glimpse of the MEAC's faded glory in Greensboro, N.C., at North Carolina A&T's Corbett Sports Center. Under the bright yellow banners of a compact building named for former head coach Don Corbett -- who led A&T to a 37-game home win streak and seven NCAA trips in the '80s -- the Aggies play in front of packed, railing-hanging, rowdy crowds of 4,000-plus. The school perennially leads the conference in attendance, often nearly doubling its nearest competitor.

"A lot of people ask me what it's like going down to the MEAC," said head coach Jerry Eaves. "I tell them you'd never know it when you come into Corbett Sports Center. I'm in the Forum here, I'm in Madison Square Garden. This place has a spirit and life of itself. When you talk about a sixth man, when you talk about people who really love their school … They came out and supported this team when we were awful."

Indeed, the Aggies' faithful have kept up the support even though the team hasn't been to the NCAAs since 1995, even throughout a 2002-03 season in which the team went 1-26 and lost all its home games by an average of 14 points. Eaves, a former player at Louisville, took over the program after that painful campaign but found no overnight success -- his first three Aggies squads each lost 23 games or more.

Last season, the administration's patience -- and the fans' faith -- started paying off. A&T's 15 wins equaled the total of Eaves' first three seasons combined. The squad pulled off an 80-76 upset at SMU in late December, compiled a 10-8 conference record and advanced to the league semifinals (where it lost to eventual champions Florida A&M).

And with seven returning seniors from that turnaround team, many of whom have firsthand experience with the program's recent 20-loss seasons, North Carolina A&T and its relentless up-tempo style has emerged as a strong candidate for the MEAC championship. Or, at the very least, a new gym roof.

"This year is a year where we definitely do have an opportunity," said Eaves. "I think that we're one of the top three teams in the conference. That's the first time I've been able to say that in five years. I usually say we're sixth, seventh."

The resurgent Aggies will remain slightly anonymous. Eaves, like his old Louisville mentor Denny Crum, has strong opinions against sewing names on the backs of jerseys. But the guy who wears No. 1 doesn't need to show his ID -- that's Steven Rush, a 5-foot-11 all-league dynamo who finished third in the conference with 17.3 ppg on the strength of a league-leading 115 3-pointers. The UNC-Asheville transfer hit on 40.1 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.

"Instant offense guy," Eaves said of his star guard. "He has ultimate confidence to make any shot he takes. You can knock him out of bounds, he'll still hit the shot. He is a game changer, that's all there is to it."

With a senior core that includes 6-6 second-team all-leaguer Jason Wills (13.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and 5-11 floor burner Austin Ewing ( 11.1 ppg), the fifth-year coach has the entire Aggies squad changing games with blazing end-to-end speed.

"Ninety-five percent of schools practice a half-court game," said Eaves. "We practice 94 feet, and that's how we play. As long as I can keep people playing my game, which is a full-court game, I think I have an advantage."

Despite its breakneck tempo, last season's squad was one of only two MEAC entries that tallied more points than it gave up (regular-season champion Delaware State was the other). It was the first time since 1999-2000 that A&T's score sheet balance didn't end up in the red. The trend toward improved defense is only fitting for a coach whose primary fame as a college player originated from a decisive stop on UCLA's Kiki Vandeweghe, the one stop that iced the 1980 national championship game for Louisville.

"I've been a defensive-minded coach since I got into coaching 18 years ago," said Eaves, who drew up defenses for Charlotte, Cleveland and New Jersey as an NBA assistant. "My philosophy hasn't changed. We're very aggressive, I don't think I've played a minute of zone since I came here. We're going to get turnovers to create quick baskets, just like coach Crum."

Not that the fans wouldn't show up without an exciting style of play to watch (there's plenty of top-notch off-court entertainment at Aggies games too). But the 2007-08 season promises an increase in hoop-related thrills, perhaps even a return to the heady days when North Carolina A&T lorded over the league.

"It's just a pleasure to be able to walk into your home arena and get the support we get," Eaves said. "I know that when you go to the other [MEAC] gyms, it's not across the board. … I'm just so glad that we're able to compete for a championship in front of these fans."

Negative publicity
For a conference fighting for on-court respect, the last year has been far from kind to the MEAC. The league's off-court distractions have brought the league national headlines for all the wrong reasons.

On Feb. 3, Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman was accused of misdemeanor assault in Farmville, Va. After a buzzer-beating loss to local Longwood, a local restaurant substituted ham sandwiches for chicken and steak versions in a postgame order the team had placed; the complaint alleged that the coach grabbed and shook a employee. The charges were dropped in May, after Bozeman apologized and agreed to make a payment to the restaurant worker.

After the 2006-07 season ended, SC State fired head coach and former star player Jamal Brown after a single 13-17 (10-8 MEAC) campaign. SC State suspended the coach for three games after an anonymous tip alleged Brown had a unprofessional relationship with a female student trainer, but a school inquiry led to no formal charges. Brown refused to take a polygraph test and was fired, and the university claimed that the refusal amounted to an obstruction of a Title IX investigation. Brown is currently suing the school, while new coach Tim Carter leads the program forward.

In May, Florida A&M head coach Mike Gillespie Sr. was arrested for misdemeanor stalking after a Tallahassee, Fla., woman accused him of improper advances. Gillespie was placed under GPS monitoring after posting bail. Local police stated that the coach had been under investigation for similar charges several times in the previous two years, and the school placed Gillespie on paid administrative leave. But before the matter was resolved in the courts, the school administration chose to fire its coach, cutting ties with Gillespie in August.

Winston-Salem State is the newest member of the MEAC. The Division I newcomer won't be eligible to participate in the league or national postseason until 2010-11, but this season the Rams will play a home-and-home league schedule against conference teams for the first time. The school is grateful for the scheduling opportunities that will allow it 14 home games, especially after an inaugural 28-game season that featured 23 away dates.

The constant road grind wore WSSU down as the team passed through Kansas, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Head coach Bobby Collins, formerly a leader of MEAC championship squads at Hampton, attempted to ease the burden with air travel and constantly searched for ways to boost team morale.

"I took them to a restaurant one night," Collins said recently. "They had a live band there. At one point, the lead singer stopped the band and asked if there were any musicians or entertainers in the house. I'm a drummer, so I raised my hand and went up there. Another coach, he sang. We put on a little show."

The next night, Jan. 27, the Rams played at eventual league foe Bethune-Cookman and emerged with a 56-48 victory, one of only a pair of road wins in a 5-24 season.

A banner hangs in Delaware State's Memorial Hall that reads, "2005 Men's National Champions." But you have to squint to read the fine print: "Historically Black Colleges & Universities." That was the season the Hornets won 19 games, claimed the MEAC regular-season and tournament championships and drew Duke into a sweaty 57-46 contest in a 1-vs.-16 matchup.

Using the same logic, we can say that the tournament champions of this league and the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the two Division I historically black conferences, split the national title in 2006-07. Both Florida A&M and the SWAC's Jackson State had identical 21-14 overall records and 12-6 league marks, and both lost their NCAA games. If there's any controversy, it's because the selection committee placed JSU on the big bracket while FAMU was relegated to the play-in game.

2006-07 Standings/Stats

* NCAA Tournament
# NIT participant
Winston-Salem State (5-24) was an independent last season.

Fast breakMEAC

After losing four key seniors from a 2005-06 squad that produced a 15-15 record and BCC's first nonlosing season in three decades, the Wildcats were due for a crash -- and that's what they got with a 9-21 follow-up campaign. But a season that started horribly, with a 10-game December losing streak, closed with a 5-4 run keyed by a newfound methodical style similar to that of Delaware State. With four starters back, Clifford Reed's charges might be able to pull off a slow-motion ascent back to mid-table.

Coppin StateCoppin State
Half of the league's schools have changed coaches in the past two years, but Ron "Fang" Mitchell is the MEAC's elder statesman, having coached the Eagles since 1986. He hasn't taken the school to the NCAAs since Coppin's thrilling 15-over-2 upset of South Carolina in 1997, but he's had plenty of MEAC success, only suffering a single losing conference record in the last decade. Last season's 9-9 record was a down season by his standards and was marked by horrendous shooting and an unwillingness to share the ball. If coach Fang can whip his four returning senior starters into shape -- and he can -- the Eagles should be contenders again.

Delaware StateDelaware State
The Hornets lorded over the conference in the regular season for the third straight year but have been clipped by Hampton and Florida A&M in the last two title games by a combined six points. Unless Greg Jackson's methodical clock-milking system can withstand the graduation losses of six of his seven top scorers, the road back to the MEAC championship game on Selection Sunday eve is likely to be a rocky one. But that one returning Hornet is 6-6 senior Roy Bright, the co-POY in the league who averaged 15.5 ppg in 2006-07.

Florida A&MFlorida A&M
The FAMU administration has set Sept. 15 as the target date to hire a new head coach, which will be one of the latest offseason handovers in recent memory. Whoever the new head Rattler is, he'll have one month to prepare before Midnight Madness and to deal with replacing the production of three of the squad's four double-figure scorers. If he doesn't face the usual player defections that occur with coaching changes, the new coach will get to utilize Mike Gillespie's juco signings, a class which includes forwards Vince Mosley and Roderick Green.

The Pirates have the most intriguing young player in the league, a 6-8, 225-lb. sophomore forward named Matthew Pilgrim. After missing the first month of the 2006-07 season with a broken foot, the NBA-bodied frosh dazzled the league with baseline drives, post moves and up-and-under agility. Hampton fans just hope he can shed a Jekyll-and-Hyde routine and show some consistency. He single-handedly lifted the Pirates past Howard in the 2007 tourney's first round with 21 points and eight rebounds. But then he looked bored in a 2-for-9 shooting performance the next night against eventual champs Florida A&M, one of the six truly atrocious performances he put in as a freshman.

After compiling a 15.5 scoring average in 12 games, star shooting guard Eugene Myatt went down with a high ankle sprain last December. The Bison stumbled in the MEAC, winning only four conference games with the final insult coming in a 63-60 Senior Day loss against bottom-dwelling Maryland-Eastern Shore. The three-man senior backcourt that shuffled off the Burr Gym floor that day is gone now, and Myatt -- now a junior -- will lead an inexperienced squad of sophomores that spent the bulk of 2006-07 on the bench. A suitable goal for Howard might be to avoid its fifth straight 20-loss season.

UMESMaryland-Eastern Shore
UMES tallied 13 wins against a whopping 75 losses in the three-year Larry Lessett era, including the 4-27 train wreck that led the coach to resign at the end of the season. Lessett may have been a victim of his own principles -- he wouldn't hesitate to run someone off if he felt the player wasn't taking school seriously, even if the player was a top scorer or promising prospect. The school has announced that it won't start searching for a new permanent head coach until January 2008, so a promoted assistant will preside over a throwaway season with an interim tag. Ew Mess indeed.

Morgan StateMorgan State
Formerly disgraced Cal coach Todd Bozeman spent a lot of time with camps and consulting during his decade in exile from the college game, so this is a guy who's had plenty of scouting practice. In his first year at Hill Field House, he guided a revamped Bears squad of juco transfers and promising preps to a nine-game improvement over Morgan's 2005-06 record, including a trip to the MEAC semis. And here comes more incoming talent: 5-11 juco transfer Jermaine "Itchy" Bolden and prep post 6-8 Kevin Thompson were high school standouts. Native Lamarcus Lowe is a 6-10 behemoth who drew raves from recruiting outlets for his improvement in high school.

Norfolk StateNorfolk State
Last season's Spartans had a 10-8 MEAC record, went a round in the tourney at Raleigh and led the league in blocked shots. But, like UMES, Norfolk State will be playing this season under interim leadership too. After five years (and four 10-8 MEAC records), NSU's administration reassigned head coach Dwight Freeman as "interim associate vice president for advancement, foundation and corporate relations," a title that may or may not fit on a business card. On the court, longtime assistant Anthony Evans will helm a team that returns 16.5 ppg scorer Tony Murphy, who dropped 43 on eventual NCAA participant Texas A&M Corpus Christi last December.

North Carolina A&TNorth Carolina A&T
With so many key contributors returning as seniors, a positive for the Aggies could be their ability to score and dictate tempo against teams from higher-profile conferences. Last season, the Aggies' 78 points against New Mexico were four points above the Lobos' average. Against Ohio at the Arizona State Holiday Classic, A&T scored 83 points and shot 50 percent from the floor. The Aggies also dropped 80 in a loss against Missouri and a victory over SMU. All in all, the school's scoring output has increased every season over the past four (73.4 ppg in 2006-07).

South Carolina StateSouth Carolina State
Coach (Tim) Carter (who does look a little like Samuel L. Jackson, come to think of it) has the distinction of being the winningest head coach in Texas-San Antonio history, leading the Roadrunners to two NCAA Tournaments. Carter will likely oversee an overhaul of an undersized, turnover-prone Bulldogs team in 2007-08 before making his MEAC mark in 2008-09. That's when he'll get 6-8 College of Charleston transfer Josh Jackson, who cracked double figures 12 times for Bobby Cremins' squad last season.

Winston-Salem StateWinston-Salem State
As might be expected, the newbie Rams won't come into the league with any sort of expectations, but their 5-24 Division I maiden voyage did produce a nice little backcourt combo in Darius Floyd and Brian Fisher (22.4 combined ppg). The 6-2 Fisher, in particular, shone in an otherwise bad loss to Wake Forest on Feb. 6, scoring 25 points and pulling down nine rebounds. But in the end, the Rams stand to be an undersized team in an already undersized conference.

Who can forget Hampton coach Steve Merfeld's unabashed celebration (legs in the air as one of his players hugs him and lifts him off the ground) of his team's upset over No. 2 seed Iowa State in the 2001 NCAA Tournament? Since then, the Pirates have made two return trips back to the NCAAs but haven't been able to recapture the magic. Is this the season?

Early 2007-08 Bracketology

– Joe Lunardi

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