"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

NC Central Preview, 2022-23

NC-Central Eagles

December 6, 2022, Fiserv Forum

Head Coach: LeVelle Moton (228-172)

Three-Year NET Average: 258.0

Three-Year kenpom Average: 295.7

Projected 2022-23 T-Rank: 290

Projected Starters: PG Eric Boone (6'2" RS Sr), SG Justin Wright (6'1" Jr), SF Marque Maultsby (6'3" Sr), PF Kris Monroe (6'8" RS Sr), C Brendan Medley-Bacon (7'1" Sr)

Justin Wright hopes to lift NC Central back to the top of the MEAC

Photo from NC Central Athletics

After a string of three straight tourney bids was broken by COVID, the Eagles limped through an illness-plagued 2020-21 season. Thankfully for LeVelle Moton, the team rebounded to a 16-15 finish last year and a third-place finish in the MEAC. While they were a pedestrian shooting team that turned it over too much, they made up for that by hammering the glass and living at the free throw line, while also applying the high-pressure, turnover-generating defense Moton is known for. With three of the top-four scorers back, they look to build on last season's rebound.

Leading the way will be Eric Boone (9.7 ppg/3.7 apg) and Justin Wright (13.7 ppg/4.3 rpg) in the back court. Boone creates shots almost as easily as he forces turnovers while Wright is an efficient, multi-level scorer, and both are highly adept at getting to the free throw line. They are joined by Devin Butts, a sharpshooting former Mississippi State recruit who arrives from the JUCO ranks. Up front, Kris Monroe was a double-digit scorer a year ago who exploded after transferring down from Providence. Brandon Medley-Bacon is the first seven-footer Moton has had in 14 years at NC Central (per kenpom). He's been most effective living in the paint, protecting the rim, eating up boards, and finishing inside the paint. Their bench has a number of options, with Devin Gordon (11.2 ppg at MVSU), Marque Maltsby (spot starter last year), and Ja'Darius Harris (10.6 ppg as a JUCO) leading the way off a deep bench.

The Eagles start their approach with defense. They apply heavy ball pressure on the perimeter, which allows their ballhawking guards like Boone to generate turnovers and transition opportunities. They are aggressive in closing out on shots, but at their best when they have true rim protectors, which makes Medley-Bacon key to their approach. Moton's defenses have ranked in the top-100 at kenpom twice, and those were also the only two times they ranked in the top-100 in block rate. Look for heavy minutes from BMB. On offense, they need to improve their shooting, and the additions should help with that. When not in transition, his teams slow the pace and live on the interior, getting heavy percentages of points from inside the arc and at the line. Look for this team to funnel more through Wright and Monroe, with shooters like Butts and Gordon providing spacing for the team to work. When all else fails, Monroe and BMB should be capable of getting putbacks and, along with the aggressive guard tandem, drawing fouls and continuing to live at the line.

After a disastrous 2020-21, last year was a return to respectability for NC Central. This year they hope to be where LeVelle Moton typically has them, in contention for a conference title and NCAA bid. The Eagles aren't a real threat to pull a November upset, as Moton has never defeated a top-100 team according to kenpom, but once MEAC play rolls around they will be one of the toughest outs in their league. If you ignore 2020-21, NC Central has consistently been one of better opponents from a MEAC/SWAC level league out there. This should be a comfortable win for Marquette while hopefully being less of a drag on the schedule than some of the other guarantee game opponents.

What We've Learned: Marque Maultsby has taken the starting role we expected Devin Butts to occupy, but both are rotational 2/3 players currently. According to T-Rank, NC Central has played like the #210 team so far based on current season data alone, a number that places them at the top of the MEAC so far. They have wins over decent Gardner-Webb and UNC-Asheville teams. NC-Central has yet to win away from home, going 0-4. The duo of Wright (15.3 ppg/2.8 apg) and Boone (10.9 ppg/5.6 apg) has been efficient and effective. The Eagles are a dangerous buy opponent because they have been great shooting from deep (40.6% is 13th nationally) and so far they are 5-1 against the spread, including winning twice outright as an underdog. Marquette will be heavy favorites, but don't be surprised if this looks more like the Radford game (a team NC Central came within 2 points of on the road) than LIU.

Marquette Connection: While LeVelle Moton is a dismal 0-39 against teams that finished in the kenpom top-100, that doesn't mean he hasn't come close. On December 29, 2012, his team was deadlocked at 60 with six minutes to play against a Marquette team that not only finished in the top-100, but went to the Elite Eight that season. NC Central stayed in the game largely because Junior Cadougan and Jamil Wilson combined for more turnovers (11) than field goal attempts (8). Vander Blue led the way with 16 points and Todd Mayo came up big late as Marquette escaped with a 75-66 victory. And after struggling with the Eagles, Marquette won their next three against UConn, Georgetown, and Pittsburgh to start their Big East Championship campaign.

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