When Jay Copeland saw the police motorcycles pull out ahead of the N.C. Central team bus, he figured there must be an accident ahead. Then he saw they were stopping traffic to allow the Eagles’ bus through. And the realization of what it means to be in the NCAA tournament hit him. Hard.
“You get the whole experience, police escort from the hotel, people are like, ‘There goes Central!’ ” Copeland, N.C. Central’s junior forward. “It’s a mind-boggling experience. But there’s also the business side. We’re here. We’re ready.”
The Eagles’ first NCAA tournament appearance has finally arrived. Iowa State awaits late Friday night. The circumstances are already overwhelming. It was bad enough on campus, where the players were “rock stars,” N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton said. This is like being on another planet.
For Central, and any double-digit seed from a one-bid conferences, this is the dream. For most, it lasts a mere 48 hours, from arrival to departure – longer, if the clock starts ticking at the moment on Selection Sunday when that name appears next to a site and an opponent and a seed. The experience, however brief, is never forgotten.
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This first time never comes again. Not for a school, not for a player, not for a coach, not even when you go to 23 more.
“We were playing in Atlanta, first and second round,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I don’t think I took the time to enjoy it, and that would be my advice to LeVelle or anyone going through it for the first time, second time. Enjoy the heck out of it.”
For a lucky, privileged few, it lasts longer. The off day between games is awash in the euphoria of victory. For a team like North Carolina or Duke, it’s business as usual. For teams that attract little national interest over the course of the season, attention suddenly is paid.
Central has a chance to be one of those teams. It won’t be easy, not against a team with the weapons Iowa State can bring to bear. But the Eagles, having played at Wichita State, having played at Cincinnati, having won at N.C. State, will not be fazed. They are, if nothing else, fearless.
They also have the highest seed ever given to a MEAC team, a measure of the NCAA committee’s respect for the Eagles, and they come from a conference that has achieved three of the NCAA’s seven upsets of second-seeded teams.
Iowa State was one of those victims, falling to Hampton in 2001, but that was under Larry Eustachy, and the Cyclones haven’t lost their opening game under Fred Hoiberg. Forward Georges Niang even compared the Eagles to Kansas.
Iowa State has been here before. For N.C. Central, only six years removed from Div. II, this is all new. For everyone from the players to the coaches to the sports-information directors to the radio broadcasters, this is all new.
“I want them to enjoy every moment. This is not your birthright to be at the Final Four every single year, especially coming from where we come from,” Moton said. “So I want them to endure that and embrace that.
“But on the flip side, I told them, tomorrow, all of that has to be out of your system. Go ahead and meet Craig Sager, meet Marv Albert, take your pictures, put your cowboy hats and cowboy boots on and whatever you have to do, but tomorrow is back to business.”
Albert, Steve Kerr and Sager on the TV broadcast. The Spurs’ NBA title banners hanging overhead. Charter flights. Police escorts. And somewhere in there, late Friday night, a basketball game – one N.C. Central just might win.