Livingstone is anything but an underdog at this week’s CIAA men’s basketball tournament.
The Blue Bears earned their first regular-season division title in school history and the No. 1 seed in the draw at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Livingstone, which went a program-best 20-5, beat then-seventh-ranked Winston-Salem State on Saturday to sweep the season series and take the Southern Division’s top spot.
“The accomplishment really speaks for itself,” said Livingstone coach James Stinson, who is in his ninth season at the school.
In Thursday’s 7 p.m. quarterfinal, Stinston’s team will play St. Augustine’s, which defeated Virginia State on Wednesday night.
“I think they have another goal in mind and that’s an opportunity to play in the (Division II) national playoffs,” Stinson said. “While they’re very humble about having the opportunity to win the division, I think their sights are still set on obtaining the other parts of their goals.”
The Blue Bears, who were picked to finish fifth in the coaches’ preseason poll, won 11 of their first 12. Livingstone has also won high-stakes games against its biggest rivals. The Blue Bears knocked off Johnson C. Smith on Feb. 16 at Brayboy Gym with the division lead on the line, then beat Winston-Salem State in the regular-season finale.
“They care about their program, they care about their school,” Johnson C. Smith coach Steve Joyner said. “They’re showing a lot of competitiveness and camaraderie within their team and doing all the things necessary to put together a good basketball team. They’re going to be tough to beat going down the road.”
Stinson credits his seniors – specifically Tyler Johnson, Ethan Anderson and Omar Ford-Bey – with putting a personal stamp on the season by insisting underclassmen work at bumping Livingstone to contender status.
“They set the groundwork last year and stated what they wanted to do,” Stinson said. “I think everybody who has come in to play under that has bought into it as far as which direction they’re trying to go.”
Livingstone has been trending upward with All-CIAA guard Mark Thomas (17.9 points per game) and backup Jody Hill (14.6 ppg) pacing a veteran group that has grown together. A key change was promoting Ford-Bey to the starting lineup and bringing Hill off the bench to provide an offensive spark to go along with one of the league’s top defenses.
“They’re a real threat and anyone who thinks they aren’t (is) sadly mistaken,” Joyner said. “They have some kids that can really play.”
Attitudes have changed at Livingstone.
“For so long, even before I came to Livingstone, it’s always been everyone in the CIAA marked Livingstone as a win or two on their schedule,” Stinson said. “Now everybody understands that’s not just an easy win. We’re trying to change the culture around our institution, not only with us but with our president (Jimmy Jenkins) and our athletic director ( Andre Springs). They really stress changing the culture and making sure we’re not the doormats of the CIAA.”
To be champions, Livingstone will have to run the table in Charlotte. Stinson said the Blue Bears are focusing on the task at hand, which means extending their six-game win streak. A title-game appearance – which last happened in 2011 – would likely land them their first NCAA tournament berth.
“We realize we’re not in the region (rankings),” Stinson said.
“We’re not (among) the national top teams, but we control where we can go with our play and doing the things we’re expected to do on the floor.”