Monday’s in the MEAC: Five can’t miss non-conference games featuring MEAC schools (so far)

Brandon Tabb and the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats will face off against Nick Dixon and UTRGV in non-conference play this season.

CALGARY, Alta. — It’s been a quiet couple of weeks in the MEAC.

Outside of schedule releases, the bulk of the action has died down in terms of player movement. The 2017-18 season is quickly approaching, and while the Hampton Pirates played exhibition games in Puerto Rico, we’re just itching for the regular season to finally get underway.

So, with more and more schedules being released with each passing day, we decided it was time to look at some of the best non-conference games for the year that feature teams from the MEAC. Now, not all of the 13 teams have released their non-conference slates as of yet, so this is a list that will undoubtedly be revised at a later date.

For now, here are the top five non-conference games that we can’t wait to see this season, in the latest edition of Monday’s in the MEAC.

Bethune-Cookman Wildcats @ UT-Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros (11/13)

At first glance, this contest won’t catch many headlines. However, upon closer look, it features some of the better guards who don’t get the national attention they deserve.

The Wildcats boast one of the top back courts in the MEAC, with high-scoring guard Brandon Tabb and red-shirt senior Jordan Potts, who returns to the lineup after missing all of last season. Tabb led the Wildcats in scoring a season ago, averaging 17.8 points per contest to go along with his 5.4 rebounds.

On the flip side, the Vaqueros counter with arguably the WAC’s biggest hidden secret, in Nick Dixon. The native of Hillside, IL averaged a team-best 18.8 points per game last season, which was tied for the second-best mark in the WAC. Fellow guard Antonio Green transferred following the 2016-17 season, but Dixon and company will look to surprise some people this season.

November 13th will be a strong test for both programs early in the season.

Maryland-Eastern Shore Hawks @ Liberty Flames (12/8)

On December 8th, two teams who are expected to contend for their respective conference titles will square off in Lynchburg, VA, as the Liberty Flames welcome the Maryland-Eastern Shore Hawks to town.

Despite losing Bakari Copeland from last year’s team due to graduation, the Hawks return a core group that’s led by sharp-shooting guard Ryan Andino, point guard Logan McIntosh, and wing Dontae Caldwell. Andino hit on 38.0% of his attempts from three point range a year ago, and is the team’s top returning scorer (12.7 ppg). The Hawks will need big years from the likes of Tyler Jones and Isaac Taylor up front if they want to contend in the MEAC.

Their opponents on the 8th of December, the Liberty Flames, are seen as one of the top teams in the Big South this season, and for good reason. Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz had himself quite the summer, putting the nation on notice with his play at the FIBA U-19 Championships in Cairo, Egypt. Add in the return of fellow guards Ryan KemriteLovell CabbilCaleb Honesley, and key pieces to the front court, and it’s easy to see why the stock is so high surrounding the Flames.

Norfolk State Spartans @ Grand Canyon Antelopes (11/20)

On one side, you’ve got a team that burst onto the national scene five years ago when they advanced to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament as a 15-seed. On the other side, you’ve got the top up-and-coming program at the ‘mid-major’ level who happens to have one of the best home court advantages in the entire NCAA.

On November 20th, the Norfolk State Spartans head on the road to take on the Grand Canyon Antelopes in Phoenix, AZ. The Spartans boast a top contender for MEAC Player of the Year, in senior guard and leading returning scorer Zaynah Robinson. As a junior, Robinson averaged 13.5 points and a team-high 4.5 assists per game. Look for junior forward Alex Long (7.5 ppg, 1.2 bpg) to have a breakout season, especially with the losses that the Spartans have had to endure.

When the Spartans enter GCU Arena, the deck will be stacked against them. From the fans, who are some of the best in the country, to the talent that the Antelopes have on their roster, coming away with a win would be a big boost for Norfolk State. While they lose DeWayne Russell, Grand Canyon boasts a top-tier guard-forward tandem of Joshua Braun and Keonta Vernon, both of whom are among the conference’s best at their respective positions. The addition of Oregon transfer Casey Benson, who brings both talent and experience to the roster, is a huge add for the Antelopes.

No matter who Grand Canyon squares off with on any given night, they can come away with the win.

North Carolina Central Eagles @ Illinois Fighting Illini (11/24)

Each and every year, it seems as though a power conference team loses at home to a smaller program that they should have otherwise beaten.

Circle November 24th on your calendars as a date that history could repeat itself. In the last two seasons alone, the Fighting Illini haven’t had the best of luck against smaller schools. They have a home loss against the Winthrop Eagles, and neutral site losses to the North Florida Ospreys and Chattanooga Mocs on their resume. Illinois lost their fair share from last season, but added one of the top graduate transfers of the off-season in guard Mark Alstork. He will be looked upon to carry the offensive load from game one.

On the flip side, the North Carolina Central Eagles have their own share of question marks. Like the Illini, the Eagles lost their fair share of talent after last season, including guards Pat Cole and Dajuan Graf. Head coach LeVelle Moton added some intriguing pieces to the 2017-18 roster for the Eagles, including a trio of JUCO stars who had strong seasons in their own right last season. Alston JonesLarry Mcknight, Jr., and Dom Reid will all play big roles for the Eagles this season, and they have the talent to lead the Eagles to an upset win over Illinois.

Appalachian State Mountaineers @ Hampton Pirates (12/20)

One could have easily put Hampton’s game against the Missouri State Bears into the last slot, and nobody would have second guessed it. The Bears are the preseason favourite in the Missouri Valley, while the Pirates are one of the top teams in the MEAC.

However, we went a different direction to shed some extra light on a pair of guards, one from each side, who are both deserving of your attention. Appalachian State boasts a star in junior Ronshad Shabazz, while Hampton counters with sophomore Jermaine Marrow.

Both players had strong 2016-17 campaigns. Shabazz averaged 16.7 points per game last season, and was the only Mountaineer to average double-digit points per game. He’s an athletic guard who can finish at the rim, but can also shoot from distance (32.8% from beyond the arc).

After his freshman season, Marrow was named to the All-MEAC Third Team and the All-MEAC Rookie Team for his efforts. He averaged team-high marks in scoring (15.6 ppg) and assists (3.0 apg), while appearing in 31 games and averaging 31.0 minutes per night. He came to Hampton after a stellar high school career, and didn’t miss a beat when he made the jump to Division I.

The battle between Shabazz and Marrow make this a must-watch game for basketball fans across the country.

– T. Bennett