Norfolk State primed for first NCAA tournament appearance
Norfolk State assistant coach Robert Jones gives center Kyle O'Quinn, right, a hug after winning the MEAC title in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Mark Dolejs/US PRESSWIRE Photo / March 10, 2012)
Still, only when the wins actually start coming can a coach fully get players to buy into what he's selling. Now, as No. 15 seed Norfolk State prepares to play in its first-ever NCAA tournament game Friday in Omaha, Neb., against No. 2 seed Missouri (30-4), Evans and his players are living the dream.
"Going through the (11-game) losing streak and having a losing record last year, it's kind of hard to believe the things your coach is saying until you actually see the results," said forward Kyle O'Quinn regarding Norfolk State's recovery from a 12-20 record last season that started with a strong showing in November at the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands.
"Witnessing the results of the Virgin Islands tournament and actually winning (two games) when we were the team that was just supposed to show up, enjoy the Virgin Islands and go home, it put more emphasis on us thinking that what the coaches were saying actually was right."
In the Paradise Jam tournament, Norfolk State (25-9) defeated Drexel and Texas Christian, a pair of quality non-conference wins for a program that wasn't used to that kind of thing. A 59-57 loss to No. 21 Marquette in a game in which O'Quinn missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would've won it further instilled confidence in Norfolk State, especially considering it was just a week after Marquette beat Norfolk State by 31 points in Milwaukee.
"It's been a long time coming," said Evans of the NCAA tournament bid, which came via Norfolk State's win last Saturday against Bethune-Cookmanto seal the Spartans' first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament championship. "It feels good. I wouldn't change a thing, because you appreciate it that much more."
Evans runs an up-tempo style that blends a mix of on-ball pressure with the occasional zone approach. It's a tried-and-true formula for success, but it takes guys willing to run and stay in constant motion.
"It works for us because we all wanted it to work this season," said Norfolk State guard Pendarvis Williams, whose averaging 11.8 points per game. "Last year, we had a lot more cliques on our team. We'd be together on the floor sometimes, but a lot of people would be off doing their own things off the floor. This year, we're never apart – on the court and off."
Evans, who is in his fifth season as Norfolk State's coach after spending four seasons as a Spartans' assistant, started his college career as a volunteer assistant coach at Orange County Community College in Newburgh, N.Y., which is also where he played basketball in college.
Originally offered $1,800 to take the job, the offer fell through. Evans was desperate to cut his teeth in the profession, so he took the job without pay and worked at a local convenience store as a cashier, earning $7 an hour.
It was better than the $5.50 to $6 an hour the shops at the local mall were offering. He didn't need much to pay the bills in his one-room apartment that featured a mattress on the floor. He didn't have a car, so he walked from his apartment to work and practice and back.
When he took his first paid job in coaching as an assistant at SUNY New Paltz, a Division III school in New Paltz, N.Y., he upgraded his sleeping arrangement to a couch in a friend's house.
He finally got his first head coaching gigs at New York junior colleges – Ulster County Community College in Kingston, N.Y., and Delhi Tech in Delhi, N.Y., the latter of which he led to No. 1 rankings in his two seasons there.
"It's been tough, but it's a good tough," said Evans, whose Spartans enter the tournament on a seven-game winning streak. "I really had to want it, that's for sure. It's kind of what I want my players to feel.
O'Quinn, a 6-foot-10 senior who was the MEAC player of the year and defensive player of the year this season after averaging 15.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, may be the perfect kind of leader to make sure Evans' message is being heard.
After playing just one season of high school basketball at Campus Magnet High in Jamaica, N.Y., where he averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds per game, Norfolk State represented his only Division I scholarship offer. He accepted it to get his parents off his back about going to college, and so they'd buy him a car – a 2010 Ford F-150 for his 20th birthday.
"Everything else has been extra," said O'Quinn of his original goals, which were simply to try to start by his sophomore year and maybe eventually break 10 points per game – something he did as a sophomore when he chipped in 11.5 points per game. "Being well-respected in the conference, being one of the better players in the conference, being the player of the year in the conference, being the defensive player of the year, that's all stuff I would've never thought of."
O'Quinn said he hasn't spent a lot of time thinking about what it would be like to upset Missouri, but he's also not trying to look much past the opening half of the game. It wouldn't be the first time a high-seeded MEAC school has pulled off the monumental NCAA tournament upset.
In 2001, No. 15 seed Hampton University beat No. 2 seed Iowa State in the opening round. Evans expects his players to be just as poised as the Pirates were in '01.
"We're going to be confident," Evans said. "The lights and cameras are the only things I'm concerned with. Other than that, we'll be ready to play. I promise you that."