(SportsNetwork.com) - The 43rd-annual Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament will tip off on Monday, March 10th at Norfolk Scope Arena and last through Saturday, March 15th, with the winner earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
North Carolina Central won the regular-season title outright for the first time this season, finishing 15-1 in conference action with a 25-5 record overall. The tournament's No. 1 seed, which has earned a bye into the quarterfinals, is also in search for its first-ever tournament championship. Hampton finished as the league runner-up with a 13-3 league record and will also enjoy a bye as the No. 2 seed. Morgan State and Norfolk State finished tied in the standings at 11-5, but Morgan State won the tiebreaker and was granted the third and final bye, while Norfolk State will act at the No. 4 seed and will play in the opening round.
The only other team to finish above .500 in conference play was Savannah State (10-6), the tournament's fifth seed. Florida A&M (8-8) and Coppin State (7-9) will occupy the sixth and seventh seeds, respectively. There was a five-way tie in the standings at 5-11 between Howard (No. 8 seed), reigning champion North Carolina A&T (9), Bethune-Cookman (10), Delaware State (11) South Carolina State (12). Maryland-Eastern Shore finished in last place at 4-12 but will still get to experience postseason action as the 13th seed.
Opening-round play will tip off on Monday evening with a matchup between the Norfolk State Spartans and the UMES Hawks. Norfolk State defeated UMES twice during the regular season, most recently at home on March 3, 77-65, although that was the Spartans' only win in their last three games, as they finished up 17-13 overall. They are one of just three MEAC teams this season that owns a positive scoring margin, as they are barely able to score more points (73.1 ppg) than they allow (71.7 ppg), and their field-goal percentage (.466) is the league's best. Malcolm Hawkins (16.4 ppg) and Pendarvis Williams (15.6 ppg) formulate a strong scoring duo, with the two combining to drain 109 of the team's 169 3-pointers. Brandon Goode is a mainstay in the paint with 11.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg and 2.3 bpg.
Meanwhile, UMES' campaign has been a struggle from the very start, as it sits with just a 6-23 overall record, but it ended the regular season on a high note with wins in two of its last three. Offensively, the Hawks only shoot 39.8 percent from the field for 66.3 ppg, which isn't nearly enough to support a lackluster defense (.472, 74.9 ppg). Hakeem Baxter scores 13.7 ppg to lead the way and Troy Snyder brings 12.7 ppg and 6.9 rpg to the mix.
The Savannah State Tigers and the South Carolina State Bulldogs will square off at the conclusion of the Norfolk State/UMES contest on Monday night. The Tigers were a mere 12-18 overall this season but made the most of their conference schedule by finishing above .500 in the league, and they closed out the regular season by winning three of four. The squad has been plagued on the campaign by one of the MEAC's worst offenses, as it shoots just 42 percent from the field for 62.0 ppg, but it also own the league's third-best scoring defense (65.1 ppg). The modest attack is paced by Deven Williams, who scores 10.5 ppg, having drained 49 3-pointers at a 36.8 percent clip. Joshua Montgomery (8.9 ppg) has been solid and Jyles Smith (8.2 ppg) leads the league in rebounding (8.1 rpg) and blocks (3.1 bpg).
SC State (9-20) has stumbled into this event with losses in four straight and eight of its last nine to plummet in the standings. In addition to a lackluster offense, which shoots just 40 percent from the field for 63.3 ppg, it also ranks in the bottom half of the league in allowing 73.1 ppg. Matthew Hezekiah is the only player to average in double figures with 12.7 ppg with a stellar .552 field goal percentage, while Darryl Palmer (7.0 ppg) grabs 7.0 rpg. These teams have met twice in the past three weeks, including in the regular-season finale on March 6, with Savannah State winning both times.
The opening round will continue on Tuesday afternoon with the Howard Bison and NC A&T Aggies going toe-to-toe, with the winner playing NCCU in the quarterfinals. In the only previous meeting this season, the Bison downed the Aggies at home, 68-60 on Feb. 3, but the season as a whole has not been kind to Howard, which is a mere 7-24 overall, and the squad has lost seven of its last eight. Although is has the league's second-worst scoring offense at just 62.0 ppg, it has the conference's top scorer in James Daniel, who pours in 21.7 ppg with strong percentages from 3-point range (.404) and the free-throw line (.799), but he has more than twice as many turnovers (88) as assists (42). Prince Okoroh has also been impressive with 14.1 ppg.
NC A&T won this event last season and has a MEAC-record 16 tournament championships under its belt, but it is a meager 9-22 overall this season. The Aggies have underperformed on both ends of the court, scoring just 65.7 ppg while allowing 73.3 ppg. Lamont Middleton and Richaud Pack are a dynamic duo with 17.4 ppg apiece, although Pack's field-goal percentage (.455) is much better than Middleton's (.331). Bruce Beckford brings 10.7 ppg and 7.1 rpg to the table.
Playing for the right to take on Hampton in the quarterfinals will be the Coppin State Eagles and the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats. Coppin State had been losers of five straight games prior to winning in season finale at home to Howard, which allowed it to improve to 10-19 overall. By MEAC standards, the Eagles boasts a solid offensive attack with 69.3 ppg, but that effort has been ruined by the league's worst scoring defense, as they allow 75.1 ppg on just shy of 47 percent field goal shooting. Michael Murray (14.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg), Andre Armstrong (12.7 ppg) and Sterling Smith (10.9 ppg) are the top performers but none shoot greater than 41.2 percent from the floor. Taariq Cephas (9.4 ppg) hands out 4.3 apg.
Bethune-Cookman was even worse than Coppin State this season at 7-24, but it too ended the regular season on a high note with a win over Florida A&M. The Wildcats' performance on both ends of the court this season has been lackluster, as they shoot 40 percent from the field for just 63.4 ppg, while allowing 70.2 ppg on 45.2 percent shooting. Mikel Trapp (11.2 ppg), Malik Jackson (11.1 ppg) and Clemmye Owens (11.0 ppg) are all neck-and-neck for the scoring lead, with each having knocked down at least 50 3-pointers.
The final opening-round game will take place between the Florida A&M Rattlers and the Delaware State Hornets, with the winner advancing to take on Morgan State. Florida A&M was red-hot with five straight wins prior to its loss to Bethune-Cookman in the finale to dip to 13-17 overall. The Rattlers' scoring defense has left much to be desired, as they allow 74.3 ppg, but they are able to make up for it was a solid scoring offense of 71.6 ppg. Jamie Adams (17.0 ppg, 3.7 apg) and Reggie Lewis (13.0 ppg) are both impressive scorers but neither shoot greater than 40 percent from the floor. Jamari Bradshaw (9.4 ppg) and Trey Kellum (9.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg) are also integral pieces.
Delaware State lost each of its last two games after coming away victorious in five of its previous six to fall to just 9-20 overall this season. The Hornets have been slowed down by the league's worst offensive attack (61.6 ppg), but their saving grace has been their play on the defensive end of the floor, as they yield a mere 64.9 ppg. Casey Walker (12.5 ppg), Tyshawn Bell (12.2 ppg) and Kendall Gray (11.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.7 bpg) are regular contributors for the squad.
Morgan State's season as a whole may not be much to brag about, as it sits at just 13-15 overall, but it has made the most of its league schedule by going 11-5 in the MEAC, and the squad wrapped up the regular season with wins in five of its last seven contests. The Bears score 71.2 ppg, which is not nearly enough to support a lackluster scoring defense (72.7 ppg), but they are aided by a +1.3 turnover margin. Justin Black is the conference's third-leading scorer with 18.5 ppg, but while his overall field-goal percentage is solid (.440), the same cannot be said about his 3-point (.280) and free-throw (.593) showings. Ian Chiles (15.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 3.0 bpg) and Anthony Hubbard (10.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg) bring a physical presence to the paint.
Hampton lagged behind first place NCCU all season long, but it catapulted to the No. 2 seed by ending the season on a furious run, winning seven in a row and 10 of its last 11 to bring its overall record to 18-11, its best record since the 2010-11 campaign (24-9). The Pirates have accomplished the rare feat in the MEAC of outperforming their opposition, as they shoot 42.2 percent from the field for 73.1 ppg while allowing 69.8 ppg on just 39.5 percent efficiency. The squad is led in the frontcourt by one of the league's best forwards in Du'Vaughn Maxwell, who tallies 14.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg and 3.1 bpg. Deron Powers (11.7 ppg, 4.1 apg) and Brian Darden (9.7 ppg) both bring regular contributions but neither shoot field goals at greater than a 38 percent rate.
NCCU actually began its MEAC schedule with a 63-60 loss at Florida A&M in early January, but from there the team was flawless, running away with the league title with 15 straight victories to move to 25-5 overall, its second straight 20-win campaign. The Eagles have been unquestionably the league's most dominant team in terms of the statistics, as they outshoot their opponents from the field, 46 percent to 37.6 percent. Their scoring margin (+14.3) is more than four times better than Hampton's second-place mark (+3.3), and their scoring defense (59.2 ppg) ranks in the top-10 nationally. Jeremy Ingram ranks second in the conference in scoring with 20.2 ppg on 42.4 percent field goal shooting to go with 1.7 spg. Jordan Parks registers 10.2 ppg and 5.7 rpg while shooting a lights-out 66.5 percent from the field, and Emanuel Chapman (6.6 ppg) patrols the perimeter with 6.8 apg (fourth-best in the nation) and 2.2 spg.