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N.C. Central hopes to avoid the usual fate of HBCUs in NCAA tourney

The Eagles’ goal for this season was to make it back and try again

The North Carolina Central University Eagles are no strangers to the NCAA First Four. This is the third consecutive year that the team’s hard work has earned it a spot in the tournament. And this year, as N.C. Central (18-15 overall) prepares to face North Dakota State (18-15 overall) on the second night of First Four games, the energy remains the same.

“Last year was my first year coming, but honestly I don’t feel like anything is different this year,” said N.C. Central center Raasean Davis. “Our goal each year is to try to make history, and that’s the same goal this year. So it feels the same. We’re happy to be back for the third time in a row. We just want to get this win and hopefully try to advance and keep playing.”

“The great thing is that we’re here; we’re in this tournament,” said coach LeVelle Moton. “It’s something we asked to be in. The bad thing is there’s no bad teams. You have to play your A-game. Your C-game is not going to get — you don’t get away with that.”

And that is where the problem lies for most historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that make it to tournament play. Over the past few years, HBCUs have consistently secured NCAA tournament bids. But the odds of upsetting higher-seeded teams and advancing past the First Four are slim to none. According to ESPN Stats & Information, an HBCU team participated in the preliminary round in nine of 10 seasons from 2001-10. There has been at least one HBCU in the First Four each season from 2011 to 2017.

Even through the excitement of reaching the tournament, N.C. Central head coach LeVelle Moton made it clear that Duke would most likely be a problem for the team.

“As long as we’re not playing Duke. I don’t want to play Duke,” Moton joked during a radio interview. “I don’t want to play Duke. Coaches are talking about, ‘I don’t care who we play.’ No, no, no. Let’s put this on record: I care. Zion [Williamson], that’s like me playing with my 6-year-old son. I don’t want any parts of that.”

Shortly afterward, Moton received the exact opposite of his wishes. If N.C. Central beats North Dakota State, the team advances to play No. 1 seed Duke and Williamson, one of college basketball’s most dominant forwards. But once media outlets caught wind of Moton’s lighthearted comments, he took to Twitter to let detractors know he doesn’t fear playing Duke. “I Fear God not Man….,” Moton tweeted.

But Moton’s concerns, whether joking or not, shine a different light on the structure of tournament play. Leading the team to NCAA tournaments three times in a row and falling short each year, Moton knows all too well how it goes. Only four HBCUs have beaten a higher-seeded team in the NCAA tournament, the last upset occurring when No. 15 Norfolk State ousted No. 2 Missouri in 2012. Outside of Alcorn State reaching the Sweet 16 in 1980, no HBCU has advanced past the Round of 32.

But for the players, it doesn’t matter which team they’re up against. The challenges had already been accepted since the beginning of the season.

“We prepare for this every year, all year,” said N.C. Central forward Zacarry Douglas. “And I think everyone is really, really hungry. You can see it on their faces — the way everyone prepares, the way we locked in for film, for practices and everything like that. I think everybody is really ready to turn that corner.”

Regardless of the outcome, Moton and the N.C. Central Eagles remain hopeful and grateful for each opportunity they’ve received to reach this point.

“The great thing is that we’re here; we’re in this tournament,” Moton said. “It’s something we asked to be in. The bad thing is there’s no bad teams. You have to play your A-game. Your C-game is not going to get — you don’t get away with that. If you’re a No. 1 seed, you can probably play a game and advance. But for us, we have to be clicking on all cylinders. It’s really difficult to have a one-day scout because you’ve got to gather all the information and you’ve got to make sure that the video you’re watching wasn’t the best game of a certain individual. You’ve got to honestly know who they are.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.