A 28-win season. Regular season and tournament championships. Victories against perennial Big Dance contenders N.C. State and Winthrop. A near miss at undefeated Wichita State. For most programs, such a resume would result in a top seed in the NCAA tournament. For the 28-5 North Carolina Central Eagles, however, the reward for such a stellar season was a No. 14 seed and a first round NCAA tournament match-up against the No. 3 Iowa State Cyclones. The Cyclones, 26-7 this season, earned a No. 3 seed by cruising through the Big-12 tournament to take their first tournament championship in 14 years.
Iowa State University and N.C. Central University will battle at 8:50 pm CT in San Antonio. With both schools winning their conference tournaments, Iowa State in the Big-12, and N.C. Central in the Mideastern Athletic Conference, the Cyclones and Eagles both are riding automatic births into the Big Dance. Iowa State would have easily been chosen as an at-large NCAA birth had they faltered in the tournament, but the same cannot be said for N.C. Central. The Eagles’ RPI of 99, hurt by the weak MEAC this season, would have most definitely kept them out of the NCAA tournament if they had not taken care of business in the MEAC tournament.
N.C. Central is riding a 20-game winning streak into its meeting with the Cyclones. With team defense that is ranked at No. 7 in the country, coach Lavelle Moton’s club has shown that they can play with anybody. The Eagles are led by guard Jeremy Ingram, who ranks No. 17 in the nation averaging 20.6 points per game. The senior playmaker and inspirational leader for N.C. Central dropped 37 points on undeated Wichita State on the road, and if the Eagles have any hope of getting past the Cyclones, it rests squarely on his shoulders.
Iowa State rebounded from a rather uneven conference season to win the conference tournament as the No. 3 seed. Coach Fred Hoiberg, the former guard, has his Cyclones averaging 18.5 assists per game, good for No. 1 in the nation. Iowa State has used those assists to propel to No. 5 in the nation in scoring with 82.9 points per game.
Keys for N.C. Central to Win: The Eagles cannot get bowled over by the enormity of the moment. They have to realize that they really are good enough to be in this game. They also have to rely on what got them this far: smothering team defense and the lights out play of Ingram. The Eagles allowed only 58.5 points per game this season and will have to rely on their tenacity and quickness to force the bigger, more athletic Cyclones to turn the ball over.
Keys for Iowa State to Win: The Cyclones have a strong size advantage in this game, especially inside the paint, where the Eagles’ leading rebounder, Jay Copeland, stands just 6’7″. If they can pound the ball inside at will, the nation’s No. 5 offense should be able to control the tempo against the less athletic Eagles.
Prediction: N.C. Central has won 20 games in a row, but none of those victories were against teams as strong and as talented as Iowa State. The Eagles should put up a fight, but much like Wichita State earlier in the season, the Cyclones will just be a bit too much for coach Moton’s club to handle.
Commentary by Jeremy Mika