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College Basketball Preview - Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

<p>An upside-down MEAC Tournament saw each of the top four seeds to earn a bye into the quarterfinal round lose to a lower-seeded team. In the end, it was seventh-seeded North Carolina A&amp;T taking down fifth-seeded Morgan State in the championship game, 57-54, to earn an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.</p>

An upside-down MEAC Tournament saw each of the top four seeds to earn a bye into the quarterfinal round lose to a lower-seeded team. In the end, it was seventh-seeded North Carolina A&T taking down fifth-seeded Morgan State in the championship game, 57-54, to earn an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

Despite the parity shown in the postseason, year-end hot streaks are simply impossible to predict, and the league favorites have to be those teams that show the most consistency. North Carolina Central and Norfolk State, despite early exits in the tournament, proved to be the cream of the crop last season with just one league loss between them in 32 matchups, and much of the same is expected in 2013-14.

Morgan State, Hampton and Savannah State all won double-digit games in league competition last season, and with each squad bringing back key players, all three figure to be heavily in the mix.

NC A&T deserves a lot of credit not only for its conference championship run, but for its triumph over Liberty in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Cy Alexander has proven he can make all the right coaching moves in big games.

Delaware State and Bethune-Cookman were among the squads to make unlikely runs in the MEAC Tournament and could carry that momentum into this new season. Coppin State and Florida A&M also reside on the mid- to lower-rungs of the conference ladder, but both have the potential to improve.

The league bottom dwellers are well established, with Maryland-Eastern Shore, Howard and South Carolina State combining to win just 15 games in 2012-13

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: North Carolina Central

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

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL: The Eagles had an outstanding 2012-13 campaign, going 22-9 overall while finishing second in the conference at 15-1, but despite earning a bye into the quarterfinals of the MEAC Tournament, it was ousted by eventual champion North Carolina A&T, 55-42. That one poor performance aside, LeVelle Moton's squad has plenty of reason to be optimistic this season thanks to eight returning players, including First Team All-MEAC selection Jeremy Ingram. The senior guard averaged 15.7 points per game last season, and could be in for even more scoring responsibility in the absence of Stanton Kidd (14.5 ppg) and Ray Willis (12.0 ppg). Jay Copeland (7.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg) is expected to see an increase in minutes in the frontcourt, and while Emanuel Chapman (3.3 ppg) isn't much of a threat to score, he is a quality floor general as evidenced by his 180 assists. Of the newcomers, guards Dante Holmes and Reggie Groves appear most ready to produce after transferring from Florida Gulf Coast and Canisius, respectively.

NORFOLK STATE: The Spartans have emerged as one of the MEAC's top teams in recent years. After an NCAA Tournament berth and a second-round upset of No. 2 seed Missouri in 2012, they followed that up with a perfect 16-0 league ledger last season only to lose in the quarterfinals of the MEAC Tournament to Bethune-Cookman, 70-68, in overtime. Norfolk State still made the postseason with an NIT berth, and it is in good position to make another strong run under interim head coach Robert Jones. The team lost just one starter in the offseason, and it will be led by guard Pendarvis Williams (14.3 ppg), who drained 63 3-pointers at a 40.6 percent clip last season. Joining Williams in the backcourt will be Malcolm Hawkins (11.4 ppg) and Jamel Fuentes (4.9 ppg, 4.9 apg, 1.8 spg), and Brandon Goode (7.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg) patrols the paint.

MORGAN STATE: The Bears had a modest run in 2012-13, going 10-6 in the MEAC while finishing the regular season at .500 overall, but it was able to turn some heads in the conference tournament by winning three games before finally falling in the title tilt to NC A&T, 57-54, thus missing out on its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010. Morgan State is well-equipped for another strong campaign in Todd Bozeman's eighth year as head coach, as it lost just one starter. Justin Black (14.2 ppg) returns as one of the league's most potent scorers, while Anthony Hubbard (11.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg) is a physical swingman capable of creating his own shot just about anywhere on the court. Ian Chiles (9.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.2 bpg) is a sturdy presence in the middle, and Blake Bozeman (5.8 ppg, 2.8 apg) will once again run the point.

HAMPTON: Despite finishing a lackluster 14-17 overall last season, the Pirates managed to do some damage in the MEAC by winning 11 of 16 games, but just like all the other top seeds in the conference tournament, they were bounced in the quarterfinals as the No. 3 seed. After hovering around .500 during his first four seasons as head coach (64-65), Edward Joyner, Jr. has a great opportunity to surge above that mark thanks to one of the strongest returning units in the conference. Deron Powers played well last season as a freshman with 11.9 points and 4.6 assists per game, and he hopes a year of experience will help with his lackluster field goal percentage (.377). Du'Vaughn Maxwell (10.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg) is one of the top returning big men in the league, and Emmanuel Okoroba (8.3 ppg) and Dwight Meikle (5.8 ppg) bring size to the frontcourt as well, as both stand 6-foot-8.

SAVANNAH STATE: Despite a quarterfinal-round exit in the 2013 MEAC Tournament, the Tigers were one of the most consistent teams in the conference last season at 19-15 overall and 11-5 in the league. They'll have a difficult time improving upon that success in 2013-14, however, having lost their top three scorers in Rashad Hassan (12.6 ppg), Preston Blackman (11.8 ppg) and Arnold Louis (8.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg). With such a large percentage of the team's offensive production no longer on the roster, Deven Williams will be looked to as the primary scoring option a year removed from putting up just 7.9 points per game. Jyles Smith (2.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.6 bpg, 1.0 spg), Khiry White (3.0 ppg) and Stephen Wilson (2.5 ppg) can also expect an increased workload.

NORTH CAROLINA A&T: For the majority of the 2012-13 season, Cy Alexander's club was an afterthought in the MEAC, finishing seventh in the league standings at 8-8, but thanks to an improbable run through the conference tournament, which ended with a 57-54 win over Morgan State in the championship game, the Aggies earned their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1995. After beating Liberty in the first round (73-72) and losing to eventual national champion Louisville in the second round (79-48), NC A&T finished 20-17. Although a repeat performance appears unlikely with the loss of three starters, Lamont Middleton (12.4 ppg) returns after serving as the team's top scorer last season, although he often did more harm than good with a poor field goal percentage (.377) and high turnover number (103). Bruce Beckford (8.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, .550 FG percentage) brings stability to the frontcourt.

COPPIN STATE: The Eagles have been one of the MEAC's most storied teams in head coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell's 27 seasons, but they have been largely irrelevant for some time now with only one NCAA Tournament appearance since 1997. Coppin State failed to make a splash in 2012-13, finishing just 5-11 in conference play with only eight wins overall. The good news is that the squad can build off a strong foundation thanks to the return of one of the league's top forwards in Michael Murray, who averaged 12.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and more than a steal per game as a junior. Andre Armstrong (12.0 ppg) is a solid complement to Murray out on the perimeter with 72 3-pointers and an .811 free- throw percentage. Taariq Cephas (7.7 ppg) runs the show, but had nearly as many turnovers (83) as assists (97) last season.

DELAWARE STATE: Mired in mediocrity with an 8-8 league ledger last season, the Hornets pieced together a nice run in the MEAC Tournament before losing in the semifinals to eventual champion NC A&T, 78-74. It was a down season for Greg Jackson, who is 145-77 in MEAC regular-season games and needs just six wins to become the program's all-time winningest coach. An improvement in 2013-14 will be difficult considering the squad lost last year's top two performers in Tahj Tate (12.8 ppg) and Marques Oliver (9.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg). Expected to shoulder the bulk of the scoring load will be Casey Walker, who scored 8.6 ppg but did so on a dreadful 30.8 percent shooting effort, which included a dismal 58- of-228 showing from 3-point range (.254). Tyshawn Bell (8.0 ppg) proved to be much more efficient beyond the arc (.417). Kendall Gray (5.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg) is one of the league's best interior defenders, swatting away 75 shots a season ago.

BETHUNE-COOKMAN: The Wildcats had been one of the MEAC's most consistent programs in recent years, but after four straight winning seasons (including an NIT berth in 2011), they disappointed in 2012-13 by going just 14-20 (7-9 MEAC) in Gravelle Craig's second season as head coach. Things have the potential to be even worse this season, as the squad lost the league's leading scorer Adrien Coleman (17.8 ppg). In fact, Bethune-Cookman will be without each of its top five scorers from a year ago, leaving Ricky Johnson (6.8 ppg) as the only returning starter. Mikel Trapp (4.7 ppg) and Malik Jackson (4.5 ppg) will each see an increase in minutes in the backcourt. Transfers Barry Smith (The Citadel) and Travis Elliott (High Point) will be heavily relied upon at forward after sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules.

FLORIDA A&M: The first two seasons of the Clemon Johnson era at Florida A&M have not gone well. The Rattlers actually saw a decline in production from 2011-12 to 2012-13, finishing last season with just an 8-23 overall record, which included a 5-11 mark in the MEAC. There's room for optimism, however, as the team returns six of its seven top performers from last season and there is hope that the chemistry and continuity formed can carry over. Jamie Adams (14.0 ppg), Reggie Lewis (10.5 ppg) and Muhammad Abdul-Aleem (9.2 ppg) were all effective scorers, but needed a huge number of shots to be successful, with none shooting greater than 37.1 percent from the field. Jomari Bradshaw (9.2 ppg), Trey Kellum (6.3 ppg) and D'Andre Bullard (4.5 ppg) also bring valuable experience to the mix.

MARYLAND-EASTERN SHORE: Simply put, the UMES basketball program has been a mess during Frankie Allen's tenure, going just 34-112 in his first five seasons. The 2012-13 campaign offered more of the same futility, as the Hawks went a dismal 2-26 overall. Fortunately, there's no where to go but up, and the squad should enjoy at least a little bit more success this season thanks to the return of three starters. Kyree Jones was the team's top scorer last season with 13.6 points per game, although his field goal percentage was less than desirable (.380). Louis Bell (6.5 ppg) will join Jones out on the perimeter, while Troy Snyder (11.9 ppg) and Francis Ezeiru (5.8 ppg) occupy the frontcourt.

HOWARD: The Bison have gotten used to their standing as one of the MEAC's worst teams. Following a 9-22 campaign in 2012-13, Howard has now posted 10 wins or fewer in seven straight seasons. The Bison hope to buck that trend in Kevin Nickelberry's first full season as head coach, although to do so they'll need to improve upon a scoring offense that put up just 52.1 ppg last year (344th in Division I). With the loss of Mike Phillips (12.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and Calvin Thompson (11.3 ppg), Prince Okoroh will be asked to step up as the primary scoring option after netting just 6.9 points per game a season ago. Center Oliver Ellison played just one game in 2012-13, and freshman Marcel Boyd (6-11, 225) should also see big minutes in the frontcourt.

SOUTH CAROLINA STATE: There wasn't much for Bulldogs fans to cheer about last season, as the team finished just 6-24 overall and tied for last place in the MEAC at 2-14. Murray Garvin, who was 2-7 last season as the club's interim coach, enters his first full season as head coach after going 61-21 in his four-year career as a JUCO coach. Although SC State will be without one of its top performers from 2012-13 in Khalif Toombs (10.3 ppg, 5.3 apg), four other starters return. Matthew Hezekiah stands 6-foot-11 and is one of the best forwards in the league, posting 12.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game a season ago. Darryl Palmer (9.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Adama Adams (9.6 ppg) and Devin Joint (4.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg) also retain large roles.

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