SAN ANTONIO — When it was time Thursday for two North Carolina Central basketball players to sit at an NCAA tournament podium and answer questions, they were outnumbered by the media. By one.
Someone from Associated Press, someone from Durham, N.C., and someone from Cedar Rapids had an intimate Q & A with Jeremy Ingram and Emanuel Chapman of the Eagles. Only five minutes of the scheduled 15 were needed.
The media swarm ballooned to seven when NCCU Coach LeVelle Moton reached the podium.
Anonymous or not, the Eagles have landed in the NCAAs. They come here seeded 14th in the East Region, and are expected to be conquered by Iowa State Friday night in AT&T Center. Or are they?
“It’s going to be a close game, I anticipate that,” Cyclones Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We’ve got to come out with the right mentality.”
Coach-speak? Not when your opponent has won 20 straight games. Not when it beat North Carolina State at North Carolina State.
“I believe they’re the fifth-oldest team in all of NCAA, and they’re hot right now,” Hoiberg said. “Any time you play a team like that it obviously makes it dangerous.”
Everyone measures success in different ways. Moton said “On campus for the last three or four days, (his players) have been rock stars and deservedly so. But they’ve got to turn off that switch real soon
"We embrace the underdog role. We've all been underdogs our entire lives anyway, so we're just trying to find comfort in discomfort, and we're just going to come out and compete as hard as we possibly can and see what happens."
"We're happy with the respect that we're getting," said point guard Chapman, "but I don't think we'll be content until there aren't any more rounds."
Stranger things have happened in NCAA tourneys than a 14th-seed from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference beating a No. 3-seed from the Big 12. Like 15th-seed Norfolk State of the MEAC beating Missouri two years ago.
And, in the darkest NCAA moment in Iowa State history, 15th-seed Hampton stunning second-seed ISU in 2001, 58-57.
But the MEAC is about as lightly regarded as any Division I basketball conference. North Carolina Central is the first of its members to get seeded as high as 14th in the NCAAs. The league’s record in this tourney is 5-27, and two of the wins were in play-in games in Dayton.
“Obviously, it’s our first time here, so we’re ecstatic about it,” Moton said. “However, we do understand that this is big-boy basketball. This is pretty much the major leagues, and we definitely have our hands full with what I believe is the best offensive team in the country in Iowa State.”
“I can assure you this,” Hoiberg said. “Our guys will not overlook this game, and if they do overlook it we’ll not be playing on Sunday.”
Las Vegas says Iowa State is an 8-point favorite. Las Vegas had larger spreads on 14 other second-round games Thursday and today, including the three other games between 3- and 14-seeds.
But even if NCCU doesn’t spring an upset tonight, progress has been made. The school is in just its third year as a Division I member. It wants its home city, Durham, to know it exists. An NCAA berth is a pretty good sales tool in that basketball-adoring region.
“My AD and my chancellor on the bus ride over here just showed us a billboard that we’re splitting in half with Duke,” Moton said. “I think it said congratulations on the NCAA tournament, and it’s out there on the Interstate. So that’s a lot of headway.”
Duke is just down the street, and the University of North Carolina is 11 miles away.
“I always use the analogy if I’m a start-up businessman coming into Tobacco Road and I have Warren Buffett and Bill Gates five and 10 miles away from me,” Moton said, “then I need to go rub shoulders with them and see what is the blueprint for success, at least in their eyes.”
Durham has two teams in this tourney for the first time. Duke is college basketball royalty. If the second team is suddenly famous late Friday night, Iowa State won’t soon forget it.
You don’t need to say anything more than “Hampton” to know that’s true.