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College Basketball Preview - Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -

OUTLOOK: The MEAC has had different champions emerge as the resident NCAA Tournament representative in each of the past five years, but one favorite will set out to buck the league's parity trend.

North Carolina Central dominated the conference from start to finish last season with just one loss in league play on its way to a regular-season and tournament championship. The Eagles will likely act as the favorite once again with the return of nearly their entire starting lineup while adding a few key newcomers as well.

In what will likely be a battle for second place, Hampton, Morgan State and Norfolk State all enter this season in good shape to continue as some of the MEAC's best programs. All three teams have won a championship in the past five years and each registered at least 11 league wins in 2013-14.

While there's a clear divide between the league's top four teams and the rest of the pack, a couple of intriguing squads could have the power to surprise. Coppin State performed much better in conference play (7-9) than it did overall (12-20) and has several key pieces back in the fray. Delaware State (64.9 ppg) and Savannah State (64.3 ppg) play some of the league's best defense.

Bethune-Cookman and Howard combined to go just 15-50 last season, but both programs welcome back intriguing pieces with hopes of a turnaround. North Carolina A&T, the league champion in 2013, regressed tremendously a season ago and lost two of the league's best scorers to boot.

South Carolina State and Maryland Eastern Shore have perpetually finished near the bottom of the standings in recent seasons, and that seems unlikely to change this time around. Florida A&M was one of the league's most pleasant surprises at 8-8, but following a heavy penalty for falling short of NCAA academic standards, the team and coaching staff has been gutted, leaving an entirely new squad to navigate through the 2014-15 campaign.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: North Carolina Central

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. North Carolina Central, 2. Hampton, 3. Morgan State, 4. Norfolk State, 5. Coppin State, 6. Delaware State, 7. Savannah State, 8. Bethune-Cookman, 9. Howard, 10. North Carolina A&T, 11. South Carolina State, 12. Maryland Eastern Shore, 13. Florida A&M

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL: After knocking on the door with a strong 2012-13 campaign (22-9), the Eagles emerged last season as the class of the MEAC, winning both the regular-season title with a dominant 15-1 league record and the conference tournament to earn its first-ever berth to the NCAA Tournament. As a No. 14 seed in the Big Dance, they lost to No. 3 seed Iowa State, 93-75, but they still finished 28-6 overall in their most successful season in program history. It'll be difficult for NCCU to improve once again this season, something it has done in each of LeVelle Moton's previous four seasons as head coach, but it is still the league favorite thanks to the return of four of its five leading scorers. Jeremy Ingram was lights out as a sophomore, ranking second in the MEAC in scoring with 20.8 ppg while draining a team-best 68 3-pointers. Jordan Parks (10.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg) shot 65.9 percent from the field as the sixth-man. Jay Copeland (7.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Karamo Jawara (7.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg) are both valuable role players who shot 50 percent or greater from the field a season ago. Jamal Ferguson (6-5, 180) and Enoch Hood (6-9, 215) - transfers from Marquette and James Madison, respectively - will suit up after sitting out last season and can only help a squad that shined on both ends of the floor (+14.4 scoring margin).

HAMPTON: The Pirates have been one of the MEAC's most consistent teams during Edward Joyner's reign as head coach, finishing in third place or higher in the standings in three of the past four years, including an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2011. The squad gathered a 13-3 record in league play last year, and although it lost to Coppin State in the quarterfinals of the MEAC Tournament, its 18 wins were good enough to earn it a bid to the College Basketball Invitational. Hampton will have to deal with the loss of its best player Du'Vaughn Maxwell (14.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg), but it'll still be a league favorite this year thanks to the return of four starters. Deron Powers (11.8 ppg, 4.0 apg) and Brian Darden (10.4 ppg) make up one of the league's best backcourts. Jervon Pressley (6.6 ppg) and Ke'Ron Brown (4.6 ppg) are also back, and role players Breon Key (5.8 ppg) and Dwight Meikle (5.8 ppg) are also key pieces for a team that scored more points last season (73.0 ppg) than it allowed (70.2 ppg).

MORGAN STATE: Ever since their back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2009 and 2010, the Bears have been one of the most consistent teams in the MEAC, and while they were a modest 15-16 overall during the 2013-14 campaign, they impressed in league action by winning 11 of 16 matchups. As the No. 3 seed in the MEAC Tournament, Morgan State downed Florida A&M (81-68) and Coppin State (79-64) on its way to the title bout before falling short against NCCU (71-62). If the Bears are to compete for a title this time around, they will need to do so with a depleted roster, as Justin Black (18.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Ian Chiles (15.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Anthony Hubbard (10.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg) have all moved on. The only returning starters are Cedric Blossom (6.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Blake Bozeman (6.6 ppg), although Bozeman shot a lowly 28.6 percent from the field. Zech Smith (7-0, 270) and Jordan Omogbehin (7-3, 315), transfers from Cal State Bakersfield and South Florida, respectively, will help make up for some of the size lost.

NORFOLK STATE: Although the Spartans failed to reach the 20-win plateau for the third straight season under first-year head coach Robert Jones in 2013-14, they still continued the trend as one of the MEAC's best. They earned a No. 4 seed in the conference tournament, and after earning a quarterfinal-round win over Savannah State, they wrapped up at 19-14. The record was good enough for a berth in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, the team's third straight postseason bid, although it fell to Eastern Michigan in the first round, 58-54. Norfolk State could be in for a rude awakening this time around, however, as it welcomes back just one starter from last season - point guard Jamal Fuentes (6.0 ppg, 4.8 apg). The squad scored 71.4 ppg on 46.5 percent field goal shooting a season ago but will need to replace high-volume producers Pendarvis Williams (15.6 ppg) and Malcolm Hawkins (15.5 ppg). RaShid Gaston (8.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg) should see a big uptick in minutes. Former Fordham guard Jeff Short (6-4, 195) will likely start in the backcourt after sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules.

COPPIN STATE: Although the Eagles' season as a whole was far from memorable (12-20), they still managed to separate themselves from the bottom of the pack in the MEAC by finishing seventh place in the league at 7-9 while even winning a pair of MEAC Tournament games over Bethune-Cookman (75-68) and Hampton (83-77) before falling in the semifinals to Morgan State (79-64). Legendary head coach Fang Mitchell stepped down in the offseason after 28 seasons, having recorded a losing record in nine of the last 10. He was replaced by Michael Grant, who coached Division II Stillman College for the past six seasons. Coppin State will need to adjust to life without its top two scorers, Michael Murray (14.6 ppg, .409 FG percentage, 6.9 rpg) and Andre Armstrong (11.8 ppg, .321 FG percentage), although the absence of their poor shooting percentages might actually help the squad. Sterling Smith (10.9 ppg), Taariq Cephas (9.4 ppg, 4.1 apg), Arnold Fripp (7.0 ppg) and Daquan Brickhouse (6.8 ppg) return as the top performers from last season.

DELAWARE STATE: Like much of the conference, Delaware State struggled a season ago by going just 9-21 overall and 5-11 in the league, although it can hang its hat on some impressive play late in the season, as it won five of six during a three-week stretch in February. After serving as the interim head coach for 11 games last season (going 5-6), Keith Walker has taken over the position on a full-time basis. The Hornets will need to improve upon poor offensive numbers (.422 FG percentage, 61.6 ppg) if they want to climb in the standings this season, and the return of four starters should help. Tyshawn Bell (12.1 ppg) knocked down 41 3-pointers at a 34.5 percent clip and was stellar at the free-throw line (.852). Kendall Gray (11.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.7 bpg) is one of the league's most reliable forwards and shot just under 58 percent from the field. Aric Dickerson (6-6, 200), a junior college transfer formerly of West Virginia, should garner plenty of playing time.

SAVANNAH STATE: The Tigers took a considerable step backwards in 2013-14 after winning 19 games or more in each of the previous two seasons. They slipped up to just 13-19 overall, but fortunately most of that success came within the league (10-6). After an opening-round win in the tournament over South Carolina State, 61-47, their quest for a championship came to an end with a 57-47 loss at Norfolk State in the quarterfinals. Horace Broadnax's squad played good defense a season ago (64.3 ppg) but struggled to put up points (61.5 ppg), although the team will have a completely different look this time around as its top four scorers have all moved on, leaving Alante Fenner (6.3 ppg), Keierre Richards (6.3 ppg) and Terel Hall (5.4 ppg) as the most experienced players left. Brian Pearson, a 6-foot-7 junior college transfer from East Georgia State College, highlights the class of newcomers.

BETHUNE-COOKMAN: The Wildcats were one of the MEAC's cellar dwellers a season ago, going 5-11 in the league while finishing a mere 7-25 overall, which included a 17-game losing streak that lasted from late November to late January. Despite regressing in each season since winning 18 games in 2011-12, Gravelle Craig retains his job as head coach this season and will likely need to lead a big turnaround in his fourth season to secure his future. The team scored just 63.5 ppg and allowed 70.4 ppg, but it welcomes back four of its five leading scorers. Clemmye Owens and Mikel Trapp both put up a team-best 11.3 ppg, although neither shot greater than 42 percent from the field. Ricky Johnson (9.5 ppg) and Maurice Taylor (7.7 ppg) bring valuable experience to the table. After sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules, former Toledo product Delino Dear (6-9, 220) will bring much needed help to the frontcourt.

HOWARD: The highlight of the Bison's season came in the first round of the MEAC Tournament, where as a No. 8 seed they downed No. 9 seed North Carolina A&T, but that was one of the few highs during the 2013-14 campaign. Howard finished up a mere 8-25 overall, including 5-11 in league action, and the program has now won 10 games or fewer in all four seasons under head coach Kevin Nickelberry. One major positive for the squad heading into the new campaign is the return of the MEAC's leading scorer James Daniel, who averaged 21.0 ppg, drained 91 3-pointers at a 39.4 percent clip and was active and effective from the free-throw stripe (186-of-233, .798). The bad news is that even with Daniel a year ago, Howard shot a mere 37.8 percent from the field and scored 61.2 ppg. James Miller (6.1 ppg) is the next highest scoring returnee. James Carlton (6-8, 220) figures to see plenty of playing time after transferring from the College of Charleston.

NORTH CAROLINA A&T: The Aggies took a nose dive in Cy Alexander's second season as head coach. After an improbable run through the MEAC Tournament in 2013 led to a 20-win campaign and the program's first NCAA Tournament bid in 18 years, NC A&T regressed all the way to just 9-23 overall, which included a 5-11 mark in league action, for its worst showing since 2005-06. The Aggies - who were outshot from the field a season ago, 43.1 percent to 38.3 percent, and held a -7.9 scoring margin - will need to replace a lot of production with both Lamont Middleton (17.5 ppg) and Richaud Pack (17.0 ppg) gone. The only two returning starters are in the frontcourt. Bruce Beckford put up 11.2 ppg and 7.4 rpg and will likely be the focal point on the offensive end of the floor as a junior. Bryan Akinkugbe (4.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg) is little more than a space-eater at 6-foot-9. Redshirt freshmen James Whitaker (6-5, 180) and Nick Reese (6-7, 210) will get a chance to fill the large scoring void left by Middleton and Pack.

SOUTH CAROLINA STATE: The Bulldogs have been a league punching bag during this decade, and last season was no different. For the fourth straight season, the squad won 10 games or fewer, finishing up 9-21, which included a 5-11 mark in league play and a first-round exit in the tournament at the hands of Savannah State (61-47). To make matters worse for SC State, it lost both of its top scorers in the offseason - Matthew Hezekiah (12.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Adama Adams (9.2 ppg) - although a new look lineup might be a good thing for Murray Garvin as he enters his second season as head coach. Jalen White (7.2 ppg) and Darryl Palmer (7.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg) bring stability to the roster. Karon Wright should see an increase in playing time after averaging 5.2 ppg as a freshman. Tashombe Riley (6-7, 200) is one of three incoming freshmen.

MARYLAND EASTERN SHORE: The Hawks have been a perennial bottom dweller in the MEAC, having won double-digit games just once in the past 12 seasons. The struggles continued in 2013-14, as they finished alone in last place at 4-12 in the league while going a meager 6-24 overall. Yet another poor season put an end to the Frankie Allen era after six seasons as head coach. The program turns to Bobby Collins as its new leader, plucking him from Division II Winston-Salem State. UMES won't return a single starter, which isn't exactly bad news for a team that shot only 40.1 percent from the field and were outscored by an average of 8.5 ppg. The most experienced returnees are Devon Walker (6.9 ppg), Isaac Smith (5.8 ppg, 2.2 apg) and Ishaq Pitt (5.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg), all of whom are expected to be inserted into the starting lineup. William Tibbs (6-6, 195), a freshman out of Winston Salem Prep, should see plenty of playing time in his first season.

FLORIDA A&M: The Rattlers saved their best for the end of the season, as they strung together a five-game winning streak at the tail-end of the regular season and even captured a first-round victory over Delaware State in the first round of the MEAC Tournament (65-61). The hot streak at the end allowed them to finish up 8-8 in the league, but it was not enough to mask a lackluster season, as they finished 14-18 overall, which prompted the firing of third-year coach Clemon Johnson. FAMU will now turn to Byron Samuels, former head coach of Hampton and Radford, to lead a squad that didn't have a problem scoring (71.3 ppg) but played poor defense (74.1 ppg). With the program on probation for falling below NCAA Academic Progress standards, Samuels will have to build a team from scratch. Malcolm Bernard (6-5, 195), a transfer from Charleston Southern, is a good bet to land in the starting lineup. Junior college transfers Jermaine Ruttley (6-3, 200), Emanuel Pellot (6-9, 230) and Jerran Foster (5-9, 175) bring valuable playing experience to a squad filled with unknowns.