DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – For the first time in three years, North Carolina Central University basketball is finally back to normal.
“I don’t think there was another program in the nation more affected by COVID-19 than North Carolina Central,” head men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton said.
In 2020-21 the program lost 64 days due to COVID-19 complications.
“We didn’t even have four or five people at practice. Coaches would have to practice in a half-court situation and then all of sudden it’s like ‘can you all play tomorrow?’,” Moton said. “It was almost like glorified pick-up with jerseys on.”
Last year, NCCU held COVID-19 at bay, but despite the precautions, it hit again during Christmas break. The team missed 34 days and most of their January game and practice schedule.
“Basketball is a game you have to do every day once you’re actively involved in it, and us taking those prolonged breaks and then trying to go back and go full speed, it opens you up to soft tissue injuries,” Moton said. “Your body is looking like ‘hey what are we doing right now?’ We weren’t healthy down the stretch.”
This season should be different.
For one, Moton is also back to his old self.
“Pandemic LeVelle is gone. [He] kind of softened us all up so I’m excited about it,” he said. “I’m just ready to coach a great group of guys.”
Don’t let the coach’s easy-going nature fool you, however.
Sure pandemic Moton may be gone, but the drive and work ethic that made him a championship player and coach never left.
It was just waiting for the right time to return.
“We expect greatness, we are committed to excellence and our standard is our standard,” Moton said. “That is where we are in our life with our program and we are not going to lower that bar to make you feel comfortable.”
One of the guys he’ll lean on is junior guard Justin Wright.
The youngest Eagle to be named First Team All-MEAC last season saw increased minutes lead to an increase in scoring, but this year the focus is different.
“My thing with him is don’t focus on scoring, focus on the need to impact winning because we got you more help so you don’t have to carry the weight on your shoulders,” Moton said. “Some games you’ll have 15, some games you might have seven or eight.”
Joining him is Eric Boone.
One of the best defensive guards in the country last year recorded 71 steals, which would’ve tied for the second-most all-time in a single season at NCCU. But it’s the intangibles with Boone where he shines.
“It’s his leadership. He has a unique and uncanny ability to galvanize people,” Moton said. “He can walk in a room and he’ll light it up, so we need to use that in a positive way so his teammates can rally around him.”
Finally, for the one thing, you can’t coach, there’s Brendan Medley-Bacon.
“It always makes your job easier as a basketball player when you know you have a seven-foot-one guy back there protecting the rim the way he does,” Moton said. “You can push up and you can be a little more aggressive.”
The court was always 94 feet long. The 10-foot rims never changed. But for the first time since COVID-19 hit, basketball finally feels familiar at McDougald-McLendon Arena.
“This year, we are just going to try and control the controllables and understand we just need to get back to the basics where we are not circumventing the process,” Moton said. “We are coming in here chopping wood every single day and that is how we have always done it. That’s led to victories and wins you know and pedigree and respectability for North Carolina Central.”