Monday, March 10, 2014

Previewing the MEAC Tournament

The Hampton Invitational? That's what the MEAC  women's basketball tournament has seemed like in recent years. And as the 2014 event prepares to tip off Monday, the four-time defending champion Lady Pirates appear primed for another championship run.

But as we've already seen in other tournaments around the country, being the No. 1 seed doesn't guarantee anything in the postseason. Of the seven Division I conference tournaments that have been completed through Sunday, only two have been won by the top seed. The winners include three No. 3 seeds (Nebraska in the Big Ten, Fordham in the Atlantic 10 and Winthrop in the Big South), one No. 2 (Tennessee in the SEC) and one No. 5 (USC in the Pac-12) that had to win four games in four days.

Then again, if Hampton was the type of program to take things for granted, the Lady Pirates probably wouldn't have won four in a row in the first place. So let's see if they can buck the early national trend and rack up MEAC title No. 5.

Of course, the MEAC Tournament is about more than just hoops. From Sunday's cheerleading championships through Saturday night's after party, organizers give folks plenty of reasons to not only make the trek to Norfolk, but also to stick around even if their team is eliminated.

But others can critique the social scene. We'll stick to breaking down the basketball.

Monday through Saturday, Scope, Norfolk, Va.

2013 champion: Hampton (4th straight)
Seeding: 1. Hampton (25-4, 16-0); 2. North Carolina A&T (23-5, 13-3); 3. Coppin State (15-13, 12-4); 4. Florida A&M (16-13, 10-6); 5. Savannah State (17-13, 10-6); 6. Norfolk State (12-15, 8-8); 7. Bethune-Cookman (11-17, 8-8); 8. Howard (10-19, 6-10); 9. North Carolina Central (11-18, 6-10); 10. South Carolina State (7-19, 5-11); 11. Maryland-Eastern Shore (8-20, 4-12); 12. Morgan State (5-24, 3-13); 13. Delaware State (8-20, 3-13)

Local openers

Monday: Norfolk State vs. Maryland-Eastern Shore, 4 p.m.
Wednesday: Hampton vs. N.C. Central-Howard winner, noon

Complete tournament bracket

The favorite

Mighty Hampton just completed its second straight 16-0 conference regular season and has won 46 straight games against MEAC foes. But it wasn't as though the Lady Pirates just crushed all MEAC comers. OK, they crushed most MEAC comers. But Florida A&M fell by only three points, Coppin State by just eight. And in their regular-season finale, the Lady Pirates had to rally from three down in the final two minutes at home to overtake North Carolina A&T 54-51 in the teams' lone 2013-14 meeting. Is the field catching up? Perhaps, and if so, this may in part be Hampton's own fault. A case can be made that the Lady Pirates' dominance in recent years has raised the level of play league-wide. Still, one of the underrated hallmarks of these Lady Pirates under coach David Six has been an ability to make winning plays at the end of close games. We saw it earlier this season in gut-check victories over Drexel and Kansas State. We saw it again against A&T. So if the Lady Pirates are indeed challenged in this tournament, don't be surprised if we see it again.

In hot pursuit

North Carolina A&T will probably enter this tournament with the best RPI of any team in the field (the NCAA's latest numbers will be released Monday). Like Hampton, the Aggies are also capable of playing elite defense. Hampton is tied for second (with JMU and trailing only UConn) in Division I for fewest points allowed per possession, and A&T is fourth. And as we saw last week, the Aggies can give as good as they get when the two teams meet...Coppin State also hung with Hampton in one of the two meetings (losing 83-75) and pinned a 59-50 loss on A&T in Greensboro the only time those teams met...Florida A&M is more prone to the random head-scratching loss than the top three seeds but also earned a split against A&T and knocked off Coppin State in the regular-season finale.

What about Norfolk State?

They weren't exactly overwhelming victories - by seven and four points - but Norfolk State did win both meetings with first-round foe UMES this season. The Spartans should also have plenty of support in their opener, and not just because they'll be playing less than two miles from their campus. The NSU men's team will open men's tournament play against UMES right after the women's game (6:30 p.m.), so Norfolk State fan support should increase as the women's game goes on. In short, the Spartans are positioned well to advance to Thursday's noon quarterfinal against No. 3 Coppin State.

Players to watch

Two-way Florida State star Jasmine Grice leads Division I in steals (3.9 spg), ranks sixth in scoring (25.4 ppg) and has really turned it on down the stretch. Grice racked up at least four steals in each of her last seven games and is averaging 32.4 ppg over her last 10 with six games of at least 34 points. Not surprisingly, FAMU has gone 8-2 in that stretch. No doubt Grice is also looking to erase memories of her last appearance at Scope. A year ago, a hobbled Grice (back injury) attempted just three shots in the first half and finished with a measly 13 points in a 72-55 first-round loss to Norfolk State.

Hampton statsheet-stuffer Nicole Hamilton is not just the best shot-blocking point guard in Division I. She's the only shot-blocking point guard in Division I. Versatile Alyssa Bennett is a shutdown defender (a quiet Richard Sherman) who has really turned up her offensive game this season. And freshman guard Malia Tate-DeFreitas is the team's leading scorer and a six-time MEAC Rookie of the Week.

North Carolina A&T guard/forward Tracy King leads the Aggies in scoring, rebounding and leadership intangibles, while guard Christina Carter, a VCU transfer, leads the entire conference in assists. Redshirt sophomore center Aprill McRae, who also began her career at VCU, was a second-team All-MEAC selection.

Coppin State leading scorer Kyra Coleman is coming off a 29-point performance in a Senior Night victory over Howard. Coleman has 1,288 career points, sixth all-time in program history.

Senior Ezinne Kalu is the first player in Savannah State's Division I history (since 2002-03) to crack the 1,500-point barrier. Kalu is currently at 1,559 points for the Lady Tigers, whose 17 wins are the most in the team's D-I era. The next step is getting a postseason win - Savannah State is 0-3 in this tournament since joining the conference in 2011.

Bethune-Cookman redshirt freshman center Kailyn Williams, who stands 6-foot-4, leads the MEAC with 91 blocked shots.

Redshirt freshman guard Te'Shya Heslip leads Howard in scoring, defensive rebounding - at 5-foot-5 - assists, steals, field goal and free throw attempts and makes and minutes played. The Lady Bison have reached the last three MEAC finals but enter this tournament on a six-game losing streak.

Norfolk State forward Rachel Gordon is averaging 11.9 rebounds per game, nearly three more than any other MEAC player. The senior is also 30 points shy of 1,000 for her career. Gordon's teammate, guard Rae Corbo, needs 16 points to reach 1,000. Also keep an eye on rapidly-improving freshman forward Logan Powell, who has led the Spartans in scoring in three of their last four games and in rebounding twice over that span.

North Carolina Central redshirt senior Jessica Freeman knocked down a program-record 66 3-pointers this season as the Lady Eagles posted their best conference finish since re-joining the MEAC in 2011. NCCU assistant coach Ed Geth starred at Norfolk's Granby High and went on to play for North Carolina's 1993 national championship team.

Delaware State freshman guard Raven Bankston (21.0 ppg) is averaging 27.0 points on 46 percent shooting in her last 10 games and has four games of 30 points or more over that span. Her 567 points are the most in a single season in program history. Raven's twin sister Raine started five games before going down for the season with a knee injury.

Maryland-Eastern Shore guard Jessica Long, the team's leading scorer (14.4 ppg), averaged 24.0 points in two against against first-round opponent Norfolk State. By the way, this tournament is a homecoming of sorts for Lady Hawks coach Fred Batchelor, who lives in nearby Virginia Beach.

Morgan State junior guard Tracey Carrington averaged 20.7 points and also led the Bears in rebounding (5.7 rpg) and assists (53) while finishing second in steals (38).

Guard Kourtney Williams leads South Carolina State in scoring and dropped a career-high 30 points in a victory over Florida A&M in mid-January before being slowed by an ankle injury. Guard Cabriel Duren picked up the slack with 23 points in a Senior Day upset of Savannah State on Feb. 22.

Click here to visit the tournament's official website.

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