College Basketball Nation: Robert Jones
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Norfolk State didn't go anywhere.
Norfolk State's story was supposed to end. That's what happens when tiny Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schools make unlikely runs to the NCAA tournament and then upset the No. 2-seed that was supposed to crush them: The story ends. The round of 32 (or 16, or whatever) loss finishes it. The star player goes pro. The coach leaves for a vacant job elsewhere. We all kindly thank Cinderella for the memories, take a picture for the scrapbook and move on.
A good portion of that archetype held true for the Spartans. After their upset of No. 2 Missouri in the 2012 NCAA tournament -- which came on the same afternoon as Lehigh's upset of No. 2 Duke; that was a really fun day -- breakout star forward Kyle O'Quinn graduated and entered the NBA draft. (O'Quinn currently plays for the Orlando Magic.) But coach Anthony Evans didn't leave. He returned, and one year after Norfolk's moment in the sun, he led the Spartans to an accomplishment few teams in any league can boast: an undefeated conference record.
You may not have heard about this, and there are some obvious reasons why. For one, the MEAC is among the least-monied conferences in all of college basketball. If the term "low-major" is still workable, it certainly applies. But the main reason you probably don't remember hearing about this is Norfolk State didn't make the NCAA tournament. Instead, it suffered a surprise loss in the first round of the MEAC tournament, a 70-68 overtime heartbreaker to Bethune-Cookman.
This summer, Evans capitalized on his success at Norfolk, replacing former Florida International coach Richard Pitino when he left for Minnesota. Interim coach Robert Jones was placed in charge of the transition, and the upshot is immensely bullish.
The Spartans return four starters from last season, all seniors, including star Pendarvis Williams -- a 6-foot-6 wing who shot 50.0 percent from 2, 40.6 percent from 3 and 81.4 percent from the free throw line last season.
In other words, there is every reason to expect Norfolk State to win the MEAC in tidy fashion again this season and just as much reason to expect it to get back to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. Standing in its way are North Carolina Central, Morgan State and Savannah State, which defended at a top-30 rate (per adjusted efficiency rankings) last season, an unusual height for a MEAC team to reach.
Then there is the risk of the conference tournament. In the MEAC, there is no such thing as an automatic bid. All it takes is one weird night in March. After all, Norfolk would know.