The countdown has been reduced from months to weeks to days to hours. With that, it’s time to start looking towards Rhody’s first opponent: the Norfolk State Spartans. If this team sounds familiar to you, well, it should. Norfolk State made NCAA Tournament history last season when they topped the 2-seeded Missouri Tigers, becoming just the fifth 15 seed to defeat a 2 seed in the first round of the tourney (Lehigh followed suit a mere three hours later, becoming the sixth team to do it). So how exactly did Norfolk State go from a relatively unknown team to one that found themselves in the second round of the NCAA Tournament?
The Spartans had an above average year last season to be sure, finishing with a 26-10 record (13-3 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference). They compiled two separate eight-game winning streaks, the first coming in MEAC conference play. That said, they didn’t really record an impressive wins (until the NCAA Tourney, of course). Heck, they didn’t even finish first in the MEAC conference! That honor went to the fearsome Savannah State Tigers (14-2 in conference play).
So how exactly did the Spartans advance so far? Simply, they got hot at the right time. Norfolk State won their final four regular season games heading into the conference tournament. Then, they swept through Howard, Florida A&M, and Bethune-Cookman en route to the MEAC Championship and an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. And the entire time they were led by stud forward Kyle O’Quinn. O’Quinn went absolutely OFF against Missouri in the first round of the dance, scoring 26 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. He had some help though: two other Spartans – Pendarvis Williams and Chris McEachin – went for 20 points each. But O’Quinn was really the story of not only the tournament, but of the season. He averaged an double-double for the year with 15.9 points and 10.3 rebounds. In the MEAC conference tournament and the first round of the NCAA, his scoring average went up to 18.8 PPG. When his team needed him the most, O’Quinn was there to put them on his back.
So… Rhody is screwed, right?
Not unless they’re playing the Orlando Magic. Because that’s where O’Quinn is right now. McEachin is gone too. In fact, Pendarvis Williams is the only Norfolk State starter returning from last year. Now make no mistake, he’s a good player, but we’ve seen a lot of Rhody fans freaking out about this game simply because the Spartans had an amazing Cinderella run last season. And it certainly was amazing. But after losing their top two scorers to graduation, Norfolk State is now being projected to finish somewhere in the middle of the MEAC this season, not near the top. It should be noted that this team is not the same as they were just a year ago.
And thank goodness for that.