SAN ANTONIO (AP) When North Carolina Central made the move from Division II to Division I, the dream was always about making the NCAA tournament.
Three years into their journey at the top level of college basketball, they’re here.
Their reward? A No. 14 seed in the East Regional with a second-round matchup Friday against third-seeded and Big 12 tournament champion Iowa State.
”We understand that this is big boy basketball,” coach LeVelle Moton said. ”We definitely have our hands full.”
Given their venture into new territory, Moton will have to guard against his players simply getting overwhelmed by the moment.
Back in Durham, a billboard on the interstate leading out of town congratulates both North Carolina Central and perennial power Duke for making the tournament. And soon after the team arrived at the AT&T Center for Thursday night’s practice, players joked that they thought police motorcycles around their bus were responding to an accident, not escorting them to the arena.
”I want them to enjoy the moment. It’s not your birthright to be at the (tournament) every year,” Moton said. ”But the flipside, tomorrow all that has to be out of your system. … Put your cowboy hats on and your cowboy boots on whatever you have to do, but tomorrow it’s back to business.”
North Carolina Central (28-5) wants to be the latest Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference team to pull off a tournament upset. Coppin State, Hampton and Norfolk State put the MEAC on the map with early round stunners in years past. Those wins show it can be done again, Eagles guard Emanuel Chapman said.
”It’s a lot easier to cope with us being on this level to know that (MEAC) teams have been successful before,” Chapman said.
Iowa State (26-7) will take more note of what the Eagles have done this season: A 20-game win streak, a road win at North Carolina State and a close loss at Wichita State, the only undefeated team in the country and the No. 1 seed in the Midwest.
”When we go to prep for this team, it’s like going to prep for a team like Kansas: a dominant team in their league,” Cyclones sophomore forward Georges Niang said. ”We’re not underestimating anyone in this tournament. We for sure have to respect them.”
What should have been a perfect week for Moton was punctured by an accident at home.
Moton said on Tuesday, his 1-year old son spilled hot coffee on his face and is in the hospital. He did not describe his son’s condition but noted that his wife and daughter have stayed behind and he’s alone in his San Antonio hotel.
”It just doesn’t feel the same without my son, my daughter, my wife who have sacrificed so much to allow me to become a better person and a better basketball coach,” Moton said. ”That’s put the pin in my balloon. I’ve got to get myself together, which I will.”
Five things to know about North Carolina Central vs. Iowa State:
BIG 12 BOUNCE: Iowa State cruises into the NCAA tournament on a high of winning its first Big 12 tournament title since 2000 and coach Fred Hoiberg has been watching for any sign of emotional letdown going into a game in which the Cyclones will be a big favorite.
Big 12 player of the year and leading scorer Melvin Ejim suggested his coach should have no worries.
”I think going in we have some momentum winning the tournament as well as experience from playing in a neutral site where it’s win or go home,” Ejim said.
SHARING THE BALL: Iowa State ranks sixth in the nation in scoring, thanks in large part to the Cyclones’ unselfish nature. Iowa State averages 18.5 assists, best in the nation. Guard DeAndre Kane averages 5.2 assists. North Carolina Central’s Emanuel ”Poobie” Chapman averages 6.5 per game, tied for sixth in the nation, and owns the school’s season record with 213.
Chapman ranks second in North Carolina Central history with 173 career steals.
SHARING THE POINTS: Iowa State is one of just four schools in the nation that gets at least 16 points per game from three players in Ejim, Kane and Niang. Moton called Iowa State the ”best offensive team in the country.”
TRANSFER U: North Carolina Central used the transfer market to get this far and set up for the future. The Eagles have six players on the roster who started their careers at other Division I schools. Three of them – Jay Copeland, Dante Holmes (Florida Gulf Coast) and Reggie Groves (Canisius) have played a big role getting the Eagles to their first NCAA tournament.
Three more – Enoch Hood (James Madison), Jamal Ferguson (Marquette) and Nate Maxey (Texas A&M-Corpus Christi) – had to sit out this season per NCAA transfer rules.
NATIONAL TITLE PREDICTOR: Wondering who might win it all? Keep an eye on Iowa State, or rather who they play. In three of the Cyclones’ last five tournament appearances, Iowa State lost to the eventual national champion.