By Kevin Sweeney
With all the discussion of player compensation in college basketball, the conversation about the place of HBCUs in the sport has also revved up. Quite frankly, MEAC programs aren’t built to compete in the modern landscape. The gap in revenue is massive, and there’s no easy way to fix that without a massive change in the financial structure of the NCAA. I don’t plan to to make this a column on where African-American athletes should be playing their college hoops, or if they should be playing college hoops at all. That said, it is interesting to see how new Howard head coach Kenneth Blakeney has been able to engage elite recruits in the early stages of his tenure– two 5-star prospects will visit Howard this fall in a near-unprecedented move. This, and the larger movement of elite recruits taking non-traditional routes, will certainly be something to track going forward.
#1. North Carolina A&T– Jay Joyner’s bunch grinded out wins throughout conference play a season ago, playing one of the league’s slowest tempos and not fouling en route to a 13-3 mark in the MEAC. Despite losing three key seniors, I really like the Aggies at the top in 2019-20. He may not be a big-time scorer, but PG Kameron Langley is for my money the best floor general in the conference– a terrific passer who helped the Aggies score in the halfcourt down the stretch. He gets help in the backcourt with the addition of former VCU guard Tyler Maye, an athletic scoring guard who put up good numbers at the JUCO level last season. This almost certainly won’t be a dynamic offense: NCAT had no player average more than 9.1 ppg last season and 305th nationally in offensive efficiency per KenPom. However, a Maye/Langley backcourt could be just enough to win the MEAC.
#2. Norfolk State– Much of the discussion about coaching in this conference surrounds LeVelle Moton at NC Central. Moton is terrific without a doubt, but more people need to talk about how good a coach Robert Jones is. Since taking over, Jones is 74-24 in conference games without a finish worse than 11-5, and has consistently recruited at a very high level. His big addition this year is former Saint Louis guard Jermaine Bishop– a talented scorer who should make a major impact in the MEAC. He’ll pair with senior Steven Whitley for quite the MEAC duo.
#3. NC Central– Class balance isn’t exactly king for LeVelle Moton’s group– the Eagles will have a whopping 10 juniors on the roster for the upcoming season. Just one of NCCU’s top seven scorers return from a season ago, but with the talent on this roster, a down year is hard to believe. Uber-athletic combo guard CJ Keyser (Wichita State) and the shot-happy Ty Graves (Boston College) should help solidify the backcourt, and physical wing Jibri Blount should blossom into one of the league’s better scorers as the veteran presence on this club. It’s a lot of new faces to blend in, but I trust Moton and the talent to shine through.
#4. Florida A&M– The positive last year for FAMU? The Rattlers were one of the best teams in the country at forcing turnovers. The negative? They were one of the worst at taking care of the ball. It’s not easy to project them getting much better in the ball control department, given perhaps the team’s best ballhandler in Justin Ravenal graduates. Still, this ballhawking defense should keep the Rattlers relevant, and I love the breakout potential of sophomore wing MJ Randolph.
#5. Bethune-Cookman– For as talented as BCU was last season, it was a bit disappointed to see the Wildcats stumble to a 14-17 finish in year two under Ryan Ridder. A big reason why: they failed to convert at the free throw line. Despite getting to the line at the highest rate in the conference, the Wildcats shot just 61% at the line to cripple the offense. Ridder has the league’s best guard-big partnership– a terrific point guard in Malik Maitland who plays with terrific pace and a rebounding beast down low in Cletrell Pope.
#6. South Carolina State– Murray Garvin did a nice job on the transfer market this offseason, landing a pair of impact seniors in Tashombe Riley (who returns after a year at South Alabama) and Zach Sellers (Savannah State) to add to a nice returning core. Sellers should help solidify the point guard position with the graduation of Janai Raynor Powell, while Riley is a mismatch in the MEAC with his athletic ability at the 4. Fixing a defense that was a complete sieve last season will be necessary to contend, but there’s plenty of reason for optimism for SCSU.
#7. Howard– Former Duke player Kenneth Blakeney takes over as the head coach at the league’s best job, and while much of the buzz surrounds his early recruiting headway with elite recruits, there are some reasons for optimism in year one. The main reason is the presence of Charles Williams, a legit star on the wing who is likely the league’s best pure scorer. The loss of RJ Cole to UConn, while not unexpected, is a massive one– he was one of the best players in the mid-major world. Others need to step up around Williams– but if they do, this team could creep up the standings.
#8. Delaware State– Any optimism for DSU after a brutal year one has to be surrounding the addition of Dayton transfer John Crosby. A formerly well-regarded recruit from the DMV area, Crosby never quite got his footing at Dayton, but could wind up being quite the coup at the MEAC level. Another guy to watch: D’Marco Baucom, who joined the team midseason a year ago and show lots of promise down the stretch.
#9. Coppin State– There’s no word that would describe CSU’s offense a season ago other than ugly– the Eagles were 349th in offensive efficiency, 341st in EFG%, 344th in TO%. Fixing that starts with the guys around DeJuan Clayton, who is good enough to build around at guard. Three grad transfers will help– Tennessee State import Kamar McKnight can get buckets, and the Robinson twins come in from Quinnipiac to provide shooting on the wing. Still, this offense may be beyond repair.
#10. Morgan State– I really liked the hire of Kevin Broadus at Morgan State– his off-court issues at Binghamton weren’t a good look, but Broadus has proven himself as a powerhouse on the recruiting trail who should get some big talents in at Morgan State. One who could make an immediate impact is Troy Holston, a well-traveled guard who could put up big numbers at a lower level.
#11. Maryland-Eastern Shore– UMES lost 15 games by 15 or more points a season ago and loses its best player in Ryan Andino. That’s generally not a recipe for success in college basketball!
All-Conference First Team:
- Kameron Langley (NC A&T)
- Jermaine Bishop (Norfolk State)
- Charles Williams (Howard)
- Damani Applewhite (South Carolina State)
- Cletrell Pope (Bethune-Cookman)
Player of the Year: Charles Williams (Howard)
Williams has been the perfect Robin to RJ Cole’s Batman in each of the past two seasons, but now the senior who could top 2,500 career points this season gets his shot at being the star. The main question will be if he can maintain his efficiency with more volume and more attention from the defense. If he can– he could run away with this award.
Breakout Player: D’Marco Baucom (Delaware State)
Baucom was well-regarded at one point in his high school career, but wound up landing at Delaware State and could wind up being a steal. He certainly showed promise down the stretch last season, scoring in double digits seven times in the team’s final 13 games. Baucom needs to be more efficient around the rim, but has a bright future ahead.
Newcomer of the Year: Jermaine Bishop (Norfolk State):
Bishop was on track for a breakout year in 2016-17 before an injury derailed his season and off-court troubles saw him dismissed at Saint Louis. He now resurfaces at Norfolk State, and has a chance to put up massive numbers in the MEAC. He’ll likely get the reigns from the start, and should pair nicely with the unique Steven Whitley.