HAMPTON — Rare is the No. 15 seed that advances in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Bloody rare is the No. 15 that wins and returns to the bracket a year later.
Norfolk State is well-positioned to join that club, one that presently is the exclusive domain of its perennial rival, Hampton University.
The Spartans defeated the Pirates 62-59 on Monday, tightening their choke hold on the top seed for next month's Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament. Norfolk State (17-10, 12-0 MEAC) has won 11 consecutive games and, entering play Tuesday, was among six teams nationally undefeated in their leagues.
The others: Conference USA's Memphis, the ACC's Miami, the Mid-American's Akron, the Western Athletic's Louisiana Tech and West Coast's Gonzaga.
"I think everybody thought it was going to be a rebuilding year because we lost so much and we had a lot of inexperience," Spartans coach Anthony Evans said. "It's a credit to (the players) for understanding what it takes to be successful."
Indeed, Norfolk State lost four starters, including second-round NBA draft pick Kyle O'Quinn, from the 26-10 squad that stunned Missouri in the NCAA tournament. O'Quinn and fellow senior Chris McEachin combined for 46 points in that 86-84 victory.
Moreover, the only returning player who scored in that contest was guard Pendarvis Williams.
"A lot of people were doubting us because we lost four starters," Williams said Monday night. "We used that as motivation. We thought they were crazy. We knew we had a good team because last year we were very deep."
Statistics bear Williams out. This season's leaders — Williams, forward Rob Johnson and point guard Jamel Fuentes — all averaged more than 17 minutes per game last year. Add Delaware transfer Malcolm Hawkins, 7-footer Brandon Goode and recruiting steal Rashid Gaston and you have the makings of a balanced contender.
Gaston, a 6-foot-8 former tight end and defensive end, attracted plenty of Mid-American interest during his high school career in Warren, Ohio. But after watching Norfolk State-Missouri, he was sold on the Spartans.
"Coming into the season all I heard about was last year's team, Kyle O'Quinn, how we lost all these seniors," said Gaston, who scored a career-high 17 points against Hampton.
A 5-10 non-conference record, albeit against some quality opponents such as Illinois, North Carolina State and Iona, didn't quiet the chatter. But in MEAC play, the Spartans have been golden.
With four regular-season games remaining, three at home, Norfolk State could become the first team since Coppin State in 1994 to survive the MEAC schedule unscathed. That feat would turn empty were the Spartans then to stumble in the MEAC tournament, where the conference's automatic NCAA bid is awarded.
"This is great," Evans said, "but you have to be playing your best basketball at that time."
That time is March 11-16 at Norfolk Scope, a nice hometown advantage for the Spartans. They'll need to win three games there to match HU's 2001-'02 double.
Under then-coach Steve Merfeld, the 15th-seeded Pirates defeated Iowa State in 2001, repeated as MEAC champions in '02, again drew a 15 NCAA seed and darn near beat Connecticut in the first round.
The previous No. 15s to win — Richmond in 1991, Santa Clara in '93 and Coppin State in '97 — did not make the field the following season.
Lehigh, conqueror of Duke last year, is the only other 15 seed to advance. The second-place Mountain Hawks trail Bucknell in the Patriot League standings as they, too, seek to match HU's repeat.
A road victory against its rival notwithstanding, Norfolk State was not in postseason form Monday. The Spartans squandered a 14-point, second-half lead with sloppy turnovers, inattentive defense and weak rebounding.
"I don't want to give us too much credit, I really don't," Evans said. "I think we played decent, they played well, time ran out, and that's why we got the win."
But while not content with Monday's late-game effort, Evans is proud of the Spartans' season to date.
"We talked about it at the beginning of the year," he said, "that they were going to live in the shadow of last year's group, and I think they've made their own path now. There's not as much talk about last year's group because of what they're doing right now."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun