CANMORE, Alta. — The 2017-18 college basketball season is less than a week away, which means it’s time to dust off a special weekly feature that is near and dear to my heart.
Monday’s in the MEAC is officially back in business.
The MEAC is constantly the butt-end of jokes for many on social media, but it hold a special place in my heart, for reasons I’m not entirely sure. Twelve of the conference’s 13 teams are eligible for the post-season this season, which means the race for the MEAC crown will be an exciting one.
That race kicks off on Friday, as all 13 teams are in action to open the 2017-18 season on November 10th. With the exception of the four teams who are taking on non-Division I opponents, every other team is on the road to open the year.
While playing on the road poses its challenges, it also provides teams with an opportunity to pick up a big win to kick things off on the right foot. Several teams in the MEAC have a realistic chance of pulling off a road win to open their season.
Below are five games that feature teams from the MEAC that you will want to keep an eye on as Friday night rolls along.
5. Valley Forge @ Maryland Eastern Shore Hawks
So, what makes a game between the Hawks and a non-Division I team one to watch on opening day, you ask?
Well, Maryland-Eastern Shore has their fair share of uncertainty as the 2017-18 season opens up. They will likely be without the services of both Dontae Caldwell and Isaac Taylor due to injury, which impacts their depth up front and at the guard spots. Then, to rub salt on the wound, Ryan Andino is expected to miss a few games to open the season due to an injury of his own.
Valley Forge may not be a recognizable name to most, but they could give the Hawks a run for their money on opening night. In exhibition play, Eastern Shore slipped past Christopher Newport University by three, 61-58. Against the Captains, freshmen LeAndre Thomas and Cameron Bacote put their talents on display for the home crowd, and the Hawks will need big performances from them early on in the season to help overcome the injuries.
It may not be the most exciting game on opening night, but it’s worth keeping an eye on if the game is close late in the second half.
4. Florida A&M Rattlers @ Grand Canyon Antelopes
Playing inside GCU Arena as the home is an experience in itself. However, it’s incredibly tough to win there as the road team, and with the Antelopes trending upwards in terms of on-court talent and results, road wins at Grand Canyon may be few and far between this season.
On opening night, Florida A&M will be the first to take a crack at the Antelopes on their home floor. Many have projected the Antelopes to win the Western Athletic Conference title this season, so the Rattlers will undoubtedly have their work cut out for them.
If the Rattlers want to have any shot at picking up the massive road victory, they need big games from both Marcus Barham and Desmond Williams. Florida A&M’s top two scorers from last season will need to carry the team against Joshua Braun and company, and the team as a whole will need to capitalize on any mistake the Antelopes make.
3. Norfolk State Spartans @ Auburn Tigers
Both the Spartans and Tigers suffered losses to non-Division I teams in exhibition play, and while those games didn’t mean anything, you can bet that both teams want to open the 2017-18 regular season on the right foot.
Auburn has had its fair share of off-court distractions during the off-season, resulting in Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley being suspended indefinitely before their exhibition loss. What was expected to be a bit of a resurgence for the Tigers in 2017-18 has turned into a ‘wait-and-see’ moment.
As for the Spartans, they are once again expected to contend atop the MEAC standings, and they boast one of the conference’s top guards, in senior Zaynah Robinson. Look for a big year from both Alex Long and Kyle Williams as the Spartans look to advance back to the NCAA Tournament. A road win over the Tigers would go a long way in terms of confidence for Norfolk State moving forwards.
2. Morgan State Bears @ Binghamton Bearcats
Friday night pits two teams against one another who both have high aspirations in their respective conferences.
On one side, you have the visiting Morgan State Bears, who many have projected to win the MEAC title this season. Led by a pair of MEAC Player of the Year candidates, in forward Phillip Carr and high-scoring guard Tiwian Kendley, the Bears have experience and talent across their roster. Add in the emergence of sophomore David Syfax, who has the luxury of learning from one of the top big men in the country in Carr, and the Bears have arguably the top team in the MEAC.
On the flip side, you have the Binghamton Bearcats, a team that has dealt with various injuries in recent years and haven’t been able to quite live up to their preseason hype. This season, the Bearcats hope to trend upwards in the America East standings. A healthy J.C. Show should make a big difference, as the Bearcats were 7-5 last season with him in the lineup, yet finished with a record of 12-20. A win over Morgan State would do wonders for the Bearcats’ confidence moving forwards, as their next three games are away from home.
1. North Carolina Central Eagles @ UIC Flames
Two of the top teams in their respective conferences square off on Friday night, highlighted by talented back court rotations on both sides.
For North Carolina Central, head coach LeVelle Moton was tasked with replacing a lot of production and talent from last year’s team. He did just that, and his recruiting class is headlined by a trio of JUCO transfers who were among the best players in the country last season. Alston Jones, Dom Reid, and Larry Mcknight, Jr. have all brought their talents to Durham, NC. With all that the Eagles lost after last season in terms of player personnel, one would assume that the program would need time to rebuild. However, Moton reloaded his roster, and has the Eagles in position to take home another MEAC crown.
Their opponents on opening night have their sights set on a spot in the NCAA Tournament themselves, and have the pieces to do just that. The UIC Flames welcome back a healthy Dikembe Dixson, who was the Horizon League Freshman of the Year back in 2015-16, and is my pick for the Conference Player of the Year award this season. Add in the deepest back court in the conference, headlined by Tarkus Ferguson and Marcus Ottey, and the Flames are a team trending in the right direction. Up front, the Flames boast one of the nation’s top shot blockers, in Tai Odiase. Talent can be found all over the roster for the 2017-18 Flames, and they have an opportunity to pick up a big home win to open the season.
If you’re a fan of great basketball, this is a game you’ll want to watch. It may not have the star power that comes with a pair of power conference programs, but this game will host some of the top talents in the country, and one of the top coaches in Moton.
– T. Bennett