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For the third straight year, Iowa State is headed to the NCAA Tournament. The third-seeded Cyclones received their tournament draw on Sunday night and open the tournament on Friday against North Carolina Central. NC Central is making their first ever tournament appearance after joining Division 1 in 2010. The Eagles are based in Durham, N.C. and play in the MEAC conference, the same conference as Hampton (I apologize in advance because this fact will be beaten into the ground over the next five days). The Eagles (28-5) have won 20 straight games and breezed through their conference tournament. In games against major competition, NCCU lost at Wichita State 77-66, lost at Maryland 70-56, lost at Cincinnati 70-56, but defeated NCAA Tournament team North Carolina State 82-72.
Personnel wise, the Eagles are led by senior guard Jeremy Ingram, the 2014 MEAC Player of the Year. The 6-3 Ingram averaged 20.6 points per game, the 17th best total of any player in the nation. He is a classic combo guard and spends a lot of his time barreling to the rim to draw contact and get to the free throw line. He averages 8.3 free throw attempts per game (to compare DeAndre Kane gets to the line 6.7 times.) Ingram is a high volume shooter, taking over 25 percent of the Eagles shots on the season. He is comfortable on all areas of the floor and a very capable three point shooter at 38 percent. Ingram will receive full attention from the Cyclones. I would expect Kane to draw the initial defensive assignment, but the Cyclones could go big to disrupt Ingram and put Dustin Hogue on him.
The table setter for the Eagles is point guard Emmanuel "Poobie" Chapman, the nation’s 7th leading assist man. Chapman rarely looks for his shot, but is constantly attacking off the bounce to set up Ingram and the other Eagles guards. The slightly built Chapman can knock down an open jump shot (37 percent from three), but it will be key to keep him out of the paint. He is also the one Eagle who likes to push the pace in transition. He is always looking for the next pass.
The Eagles are a very balanced club, but not deep. They play a pretty consistent seven players. The other six players that play other than Ingram all average five to ten points. Athletic 6-7 forward Jordan Parks comes off the bench and is their second leading scorer at ten points per game. They are not a very tall group, but big man Jay Copeland is a bulky bruiser. He is a large man at 6-7, 255 pounds and although not overly athletic, he sets some vicious screens to get Ingram loose.
Make no mistake though, the offense is predicated on Ingram and they will need him to be great. Offensively, the Eagles play at a deliberate pace, with the 277th ranked tempo in college basketball. They take their time and let Chapman and Ingram make the right decision.
On defense, NCCU is statistically one of the best in the nation, holding opponents to just 37 percent shooting, good for 2nd nationally. However, they are not nearly as good against high-level competition, allowing 48 percent shooting to Wichita State and 45 percent to Maryland. They are a hard-nosed bunch and very active and will make Iowa State work to find looks on the offensive end. Chapman in particular is an opportunistic defender. The Eagles have enough athleticism to match-up ok with Iowa State, but the MEAC lacks the skill level that the Cyclones bring to the table. Look for Iowa State to flip the floor and get Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim isolated on the big fella Copeland on the perimeter. Kane’s ability to bully smaller guards will also be a huge problem for the Eagles.
The Eagles are a veteran club that starts five upper-classmen and obviously confident after winning twenty straight games. Iowa State won’t be able to just show up like some other non-conference foes they have met this season. This is a solid Eagle club and will be a feisty test for the Cyclones.
The MEAC has had an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament since 1981; they have won their opening round game on three occasions–the aforementioned Hampton game in 2001, 15th seed Coppin State knocked off South Carolina in 1997 and 15th seed Norfolk State upset Missouri in 2012.
The opportunity for the Cyclones to do something special starts on Friday. If a focused and sharp Iowa State team comes to play, they should be able to advance to the next round. But with Ingram and a solid defense, the Eagles are no walk-over. Time for Iowa State to go to work.