DURHAM — LeVelle Moton knew what was coming. That didn’t stop him from trying to avoid it anyway.
Moments after his N.C. Central basketball team earned its third straight NCAA Tournament bid by beating Norfolk State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament championship on Saturday, he openly lobbied the selection committee not to match his team against Duke in the opening round.
And the members listened to him. At least somewhat.
Moton’s Eagles will play North Dakota State on Wednesday at the First Four in Dayton, Ohio. But if they win that, as the lowest rated of the 68 teams seeded into the bracket on Sunday, they will then have to deal with the inevitable and a date against Zion Williamson and the top-seeded Blue Devils.
“At this stage, we knew who we were going to get,” said Moton, admitting that his “plea” to the selection committee was tongue-in-cheek. “That’s why I said it. But first of all, we’ve got to take care of business against North Dakota State. They’re a very good basketball team.
“It would be wonderful to face Duke. Obviously, it’s a huge challenge. But everything at this point is going to be a huge challenge for us.”
NCCU (18-15) has been fighting an uphill battle since struggling through a difficult nonconference schedule with only five wins in 14 games. The Eagles rebounded by finishing third during the MEAC regular season before avenging three of their five league losses with wins against NC A&T and Norfolk State in the postseason tournament.
The tournament championship was NCCU’s third straight, making the Eagles the first team to accomplish that feat since A&T won seven in a row from 1982-88. It also marks the third consecutive trip to the First Four for Moton and his team.
After having lost the previous two — to Texas Southern last year and UC Davis in 2017, to go along with a main bracket defeat by Iowa State in 2014 — NCCU has a chance to make some history before getting thrown to the wolves, or in this case, the Blue Devils, on Friday in Columbia, S.C.
“To me and my teammates, my brothers, that’s going to mean a lot, just like this three-peat,” said senior forward Zacarry Douglas, an all-MEAC Tournament selection who ranks second on the team in rebounding at 7.8 per game. “We know there are many more W’s to come. We’re looking forward to getting it done.”
In order for that to happen, the Eagles will have to beat a team that’s something of a mirror image of itself.
The Bison are also 18-15 and earned their NCAA bid by winning their conference tournament after finishing third in the Summit League during the regular season. They feature a balanced scoring lineup that averages just over 70 points per game.
The biggest difference is that North Dakota State relies heavily on the 3-point shot while NCCU likes to go inside to take advantage of first-team All-MEAC big man Raasean Davis, who leads the team at 14.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.
If there’s any advantage for either team going into the game, it could be that the Eagles have already experienced all the distractions that come with the NCAA Tournament experience.
“It helps us from the fact that we’ve been there and we know what the environment is like,” Davis said. “With the atmosphere we’re going into, we know what it takes. We just have to stay locked in. As long as we do what we need to do and handle what we need to handle, I feel like we can compete with anyone.”
Even that other team from Durham in the tournament field?
After UMBC and Virginia last year, anything is possible. No matter how improbable it seems.
“That’s the great thing about this time of year,” Douglas said. “You never know who you’re going against. We’re a 16 seed and we’ve got the potential to match up in a historic game with us and Duke. I’m just looking forward to getting past North Dakota State first.”
The game plan for doing that is simple, Moton said. Just stay within the game plan and try not to make things any more complicated than they have to be.
“At the end of the day, it’s basketball,” he said. “The goals are still 10 feet, the floor is still 94 by 50, so you go out there, put the ball in the hole and stop the other team from doing so.”