Inconsistent Howard University embarks on what it hopes will be a successful three-day series of basketball final examinations tonight in the opening round of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C.
The Bison take on North Carolina Central at 9 p.m. in the final opening-round game at Greensboro Coliseum. Morgan State opens against Maryland-Eastern Shore at 3 p.m.; Delaware State opposes South Carolina State at 7.
Howard, tied with Morgan for third place in the MEAC regular-season standings, won a coin flip this week to stay out of North Carolina A&T's bracket. The regular-season champion Aggies, who received a first-round bye, play the Morgan-Eastern Shore winner in a 9 p.m. semifinal Friday. Tonight's other two winners meet in the first semifinal at 7. Saturday's championship is at 9 p.m.
"Howard has a real good team and (A.B.) Williamson's a good coach," said Gene Littles, former American Basketball Association player in his second year at the reins of A&T.
"They should have done better than 6-6 in the conference. The trouble is that they get up to play us but can't get psyched to play teams like Maryland-Eastern Shore and South Carolina State. They end up getting beaten in a lot of games they should win."
The Bison, 14-1 overall, handed A&T its only conference loss. But that shining moment was flanked by embarrassing losses to N.C. Central and South Carolina State, who brought up the rear of the MEAC with 3-9 and 4-8 marks, respectively.
"It was tough to get the players up for the Howard game after we had clinched the conference championship the night before," said Littles. "We did rally from six points down to go ahead in the final minutes and then lost on a long shot at the end."
But before the Bison can reach the final and a possible rubber match with the Aggies, they have to get through a bracket with three teams (S.C. State, N.C. Central and Delaware State) that played Howard to a 3-3 tie during the season series.
Howard split two contests against second-place Delaware State (17-9, 7-5), winning by 16 at home and losing there by 14. The Bison made just over one-third of their shots in the loss.
Sixty-four percent shooting carried Howard to a nine-point victory at Central before NCC won in triple overtime in Burr Gymnasium. The Bison trounced S.C. State by 18 points in Burr and lost to the Bulldogs by six in the season finale.
"The talent in the conference is pretty much balanced," said Littles. "It is characteristic of the whole league for games to be close. We won some by three or four points."
Of six games played in last year's tournament, four were decided by three points or fewer. A&T, which won last year and has taken five of the seven MEAC playoffs, won each of its games by three points.
"I hope they're psyched, but they don't seem to be especially up," Littles said of his A&T players. "This is almost like a home game. It's our hometown even though we don't play at the coliseum during the season. There isn't the excitement of traveling to an out-of-town tournament, staying in motels, et cetera. We'll just take a bus over to the game just like any other."
Littles said he was happy to have gotten the firstround bye, but not for the obvious reason of having to play one less game to reach the final.
"It's definitely a party situation here," said Littles. "After a victory, the players go out and fun some, maybe have a beer, stay up later than they should. They don't get their proper rest. By Saturday, the bodies haven't recovered from all that."
The socializing may be due to the fact that the winning team has little to look forward to. Because three of the MEAC's members are still Division II (Morgan, NCC and Eastern Shore) and the rest Division I, the NCAA does not automatically invites the tourney winner to either the Division I or II tournaments.
Last season, A & T, which finished 20-8 after winning the tournament, hoped to receive a bid to the National Invitation Tournament. It never came.
Said Littles, "First we got the cake (MEAC title), then the icing (meac/ tournament championship). But we didn't quite get a shot at the candles (NIT)."
Howard is basing its hopes on its front-court trio, sophomore forward Larry Spriggs, senior center Dorian Dent and senior forward Carlton Richardson.
Spriggs has powered his way to a 15.1 scoring average to lead the team and is second in the MEAC in rebounding (9.9). Dent leads the conference in rebounding with a 10.0 average.
Richardson has been on a recent tear that has seen him average 18.5 points the past four games while grabbing 45 rebounds.