NORFOLK — In 2013, Norfolk State was sitting as pretty as it ever had.
The Spartans were 21-10 overall and 16-0 in the MEAC when the league tournament tipped off at Scope Arena.
But they soiled the mattress, blowing a 13-point second-half lead before falling to Bethune-Cookman in overtime in the quarterfinals.
As high as expectations were at NSU by the end of that year, they might be even higher now.
The Spartans return a whopping 12 players, including four starters, from a team that went 24-7 and won a second straight MEAC Tournament title.
Senior Joe Bryant, the reigning MEAC Player of the Year, is back. So is Kris Bankston, a 6-foot-9 dunk machine who averaged 11 points and 6.8 rebounds per game last season.
Of NSU’s top 12 scorers last season, 11 return.
“NCAA Tournament or bust” is a tired preseason cliché for talented teams. But it might apply at Echols Hall.
“You hate to put that expectation on it, but I think that it’ll be closer this year than any other year,” said 10th-year coach Robert Jones, the reigning MEAC Coach of the Year and an assistant on that 2013 squad. “Because it’s so hard to win in a one-bid conference, you have to be perfect in that Scope. You could win 25 games, and if you don’t win that game in the Scope, it seems like it was a bust. We’ve seen it.”
He doesn’t want to see it again. That’s why Jones had “some spirited conversations” early in camp, when it seemed like his veteran players were going through the motions.
At a practice last week, as the Spartans went through a 3-on-4 scramble drill in which players basically play keep-away, players watching from the perimeter clapped and screamed ceaselessly. The cheering reached a crescendo when two or three players would dive in a heap to get a ball that had bounced out of bounds.
Jones likened the early days of camp to “a veterans’ training camp.”
By comparison, this was Parris Island.
“We all know the main goal at the end,” said Bryant, a former star for Lake Taylor High. “But with 12 guys returning, we just can’t take that for granted.
“Other teams are going to be coming for us, so we’ve got to stay locked in, stay mentally focused and win the mental game. If we do that, we can beat anybody.”
They’ll certainly play anybody. The non-conference schedule includes games at No. 5 Baylor, No. 8 UCLA and No. 3 Houston.
Jones said the guarantee games will generate about $400,000, which he plans to put toward program enhancements like nutritional supplements, post-practice meals and a foreign tour next season.
The upgrades are some of the spoils of running one of the nation’s most successful mid-major programs. Only one player, guard Jalen Hawkins, opted for the transfer portal.
Jones appreciates how unusual the setup is.
“This is rare,” he said. “Some teams have 12 players transfer out. We have 12 people come back, which is, I guess, a testament to the whole program, to the whole school, to coaches — everybody. To teammates. Everybody said that they liked each other and wanted to come back.”
After beating Appalachian State in the NCAA First Four two seasons ago, NSU fell to No. 1 seed Baylor in a first-round game last season.
Bankston, who transferred from Little Rock before last season, wants another shot.
“Just getting that first experience, that first taste of the NCAA Tournament, that just makes me want to go back because it was a great experience,” he said. “It was something I’d never experienced before. I’ve heard the longer you stay in, the better it gets, the better your experience is. So I want to go back and I want to experience more.”
To do that, the Spartans know the veterans’ camps won’t cut it. Jones wants to see energy, excitement and bodies on the floor — all signs that even with all this talent, his players are taking nothing for granted.
“That’s not how we got the last two championships, by going through the motions,” Jones said. “So we had to pick up our intensity.”
David Hall, firstname.lastname@example.org
Last year: 24-7, 14-2 MEAC (T-first)
Coach: Robert Jones (166-128 in nine seasons)
Season opener: Monday vs. Virginia University of Lynchburg, 7:30 p.m.
MEAC predicted order of finish, as selected by coaches: 1. Norfolk State, 2. North Carolina Central, 3. Howard, 4. Morgan State, 5. Coppin State, 6. Maryland Eastern Shore, 7. Delaware State, 8. South Carolina State.
7: vs. Virginia University of Lynchburg, 7:30 p.m.; 9: vs. Cairn, 7 p.m.; 11 at Baylor, 8 p.m.; 14: at UCLA, 10 p.m.; 17: at Monmouth, 7 p.m.; 19 vs. *Alabama A&M, 6 p.m.; 22: vs. St. Mary’s College of Maryland, 7 p.m.; 29: at Houston, 8 p.m.
3: at Old Dominion, 7 p.m.; 10: at William & Mary, 4 p.m.; 14: vs. Bowling Green, 7:30 p.m.; 17: vs. ^Hampton, 4 p.m.; 18: vs. ^North Carolina A&T; 21: at Nevada, 5 p.m.
4: vs. Penn State Wilkes-Barre, 7 p.m.; 7: vs. Maryland Eastern Shore, 4 p.m.; 9: at Delaware State, 7:30 p.m.; 14: vs. Howard, 4 p.m.; 21: at Coppin State, 4 p.m.; 23: at Morgan State, 7:30 p.m.; 28: vs. South Carolina State, 4 p.m.; 30: vs. North Carolina Central, 7 p.m.
As it happens
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4: %Hampton, 5 p.m.; 11: at Maryland Eastern Shore, 4 p.m.; 13: vs. Delaware State, 7:30 p.m.; 18: vs. Morgan State, 4 p.m.; 20: vs. Coppin State, 7:30 p.m.; 25: at South Carolina State, 7:30 p.m.
2: at Howard, 9 p.m.; 8-11: MEAC Tournament in Scope Arena
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