NCCU relying on senior citizens in bid to return to NCAA tournament

With a starting lineup comprised of five fifth-year seniors, the Eagles hold the distinction of being the oldest Division I team in the nation

Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
N.C. Central head coach LeVelle Moton reacts to a three-pointer during the college basketball game against LIU Brooklyn on Tuesday

DURHAM — Seniors are a valuable and rare commodity in college basketball these days, especially once the postseason begins. No one knows that better than NC Central coach LaVelle Moton, which is why he’s worked so hard to try to corner the market on veteran players.Moton’s current roster includes six upperclassmen, impressive on its own, but even more so when there are also a pair of redshirt juniors at his disposal.With a starting lineup comprised of five fifth-year seniors, the Eagles hold the distinction of being the oldest Division I team in the nation — though as Patrick Cole noted, “old” is a relative term considering that he and most of his teammates are still only in their early 20s.”It feels weird, because when you say we’re old it’s not like we’re in the locker room rubbing BenGay on our knees before games,” said Cole, who on November 19 became the first NCCU player ever to record a triple-double with 14 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in an 84-75 win against Jackson State.”It didn’t hit me until we played Missouri and someone said that to me. But it’s still basketball. It’s really not weird because the ball still bounces the same. There’s no difference than when we were younger.”In some ways, the Eagles are still a relatively young team despite their collective experience. Of the six seniors on the team, three are transfers playing in their first season for NCCU.Taking in strays has become something of a trademark for Moton. All six of his seniors and one of the redshirt juniors started their college careers at other schools.Cole, a 6-foot-5 guard who leads the team in both scoring and rebounding at 19.3 points and 7.3 boards per game, played at both Coppin State and Siena before arriving in Durham. Point guard Dajuan Graf transferred in from Florida Gulf Coast, where he played in 37 games as a freshman on the famous “Dunk City” team that upset Georgetown on the way to the Sweet 16 of the 2103 NCAA tournament.Rashaun Madison, the team’s top 3-point shooting threat, is the old-timer of the bunch having played two previous seasons at NCCU after starting out at New Mexico Junior College.The three senior newcomers are big man Will Ransom, who came by way of Illinois State, wing Del’vin Dickerson from Bowling Green and sixth man Ron Trapps from Coastal Carolina.”It’s unusual, but our recruiting style has to be more nontraditional because there are 30 schools in the state and we’re not getting the best guys coming right out of high school,” Moton said. “Our league [the MEAC] is kind of based off the transfer epidemic we now have in this game and we have to stay older and everyone else is young. I think the oldest team in the league has won the championship for past nine years.”That list includes the Eagles, who won the league title and its automatic berth in the NCAA tournament in 2014. The following year, Moton led his team to a 16-0 MEAC record, but lost in the conference tournament and had to settle for a spot in the NIT.This year’s squad has shown that it has the potential to continue the trend and get back to the NCAA tournament after upsetting Missouri on Nov. 28 and extending both Ohio State and LSU to the limit before suffering single-digit road losses.But despite being given a better than 90-percent chance of winning the MEAC by ESPN earlier this month, NCCU (10-6) showed that it still has some work to do in the way of chemistry building when it sleep-walked its way to a 69-68 home loss to predicted bottom-feeder Delaware State in its conference opener on Tuesday.”The first semester of a basketball team is a coach’s personality and the second semester of a basketball team is the players’ personality,” Moton said. “We’re the oldest team in the country, but sometimes we still act so immature. That needs to hurry up and be corrected. We struggle whenever something doesn’t go our way.”The good news is that there are still 14 games and nearly two months left to go before the MEAC tournament in Norfolk, which as Cole noted, is the only thing that really matters in a one-bid league.”Every game is going to prepare us for March,” he said. “That’s what it all boils down to.”If all goes according to plan, March is when the advantage of having so many seniors on the roster figures to have its greatest impact. Because while this group of “elder statesmen” hasn’t faced a postseason together, they all know first-hand how much the intensity and urgency picks up when the games become a win-or-go-home proposition.”With five seniors out there we should know what to do, we’ve been in college a while,” Graf said.”It’s good to always know everyone else has been in college longer than they should have and have a lot of experience,” Dickerson added. “That’s what [Moton] stays on us about, because we’re old we have to be mature in certain situations.”