Confident Eagles open NCAA run in Dayton
North Carolina Central head coach LeVelle Moton didn’t think his team had earned a shot at the NCAA Tournament after finishing the regular season with back-to-back losses to Savannah State and North Carolina A&T, which ranked second from the bottom in national RPI rankings.
Those losses snapped a 13-game winning streak and served as a wake-up call for the Eagles (25-8) who cruised to three straight victories to capture a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament title, winning those games by an average of 23 points.
The Eagles now are brimming with confidence as they prepare to face UC Davis in the NCAA Tournament First Four at University of Dayton Arena on Wednesday night (6:40 p.m., tru TV / 99.9 FM The Fan). UC Davis (22-12) is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance.
“We’re not just going there to be a participant,” Moton told the Durham Herald Sun. “We’re going out there to win a basketball game.”
Both teams are No. 16 seeds.
North Carolina Central is making its second NCAA Tournament appearance. As a No. 14 seed in 2014, the Eagles lost to No. 3 seed Iowa State in the first round, three years after the program gained Division I status.
The Eagles who average 75.1 points per game are led by senior guards Patrick Cole who averages 19.5 points per game and Dajuan Graf who averages 14.3.
NCCU, the second-lowest seed in the NCAA Tournament, shoots just 29.1 percent from 3-point range and 63.1 percent from the free throw line. The Eagles will need to do better in those areas to advance.
North Carolina Central challenged itself in non-conference scheduling this season, losing to Marshall and Ohio State but beating Missouri and beat Northern Kentucky, a team that earned a No. 14 seed after winning the Horizon League tournament title.
UC Davis has three players averaging in double-figures led by senior guard Brynton Lemar who scores 16 points per game and junior forward Chima Moneke who adds 14.5. Moneke averages nearly 10 rebounds per game and 1.4 blocks.
UC Davis scores more than 71 points per game while holding opponents under 70.
Its 22 wins are the second-most since becoming a Division I program in 2004. UC Davis joined the Big West Conference in 2007.
Aggies head coach Jim Les is no stranger to achieving NCAA Tournament success at mid-major programs. Les took his alma mater Bradley to the Sweet 16 in 2006.
“It’s unbelievable,” Les said of UC Davis’ run this season. “I’m so happy for these guys. They’ve worked so hard all year, and they deserve it. Great kids, great character and they’re a joy to coach.”
Either UC Davis or North Carolina Central will earn its first NCAA Tournament win on Wednesday night. The reward will be a matchup with No. 1 seed Kansas in Tulsa. The Jayhawks own 14 Final Four appearances and three national championships in their storied history.
The Eagles and Aggies say they’ll gladly worry about Bill Self’s team when the time comes.
“It’s just a great feeling to be able to go to the NCAA Tournament,” Graf told the Herald Sun. “A lot of the teams in the nation don’t get the opportunity to play in the tournament.”