Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint.
By David Cordova
It’s a Monday night in Baltimore, Maryland and there’s a big game taking place at Hill Field House on the campus of Morgan State University. The games in the MEAC (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) hold a lot of weight in the black community, as it is a haven for players with talent that are looking for an opportunity to play college basketball on the Division I level.
On this night, Norfolk State, the first-place team in the conference, is in the building, and they’re coming to win. For those that may not know about the Spartans, let us put you on to them. They are the powerhouse program in the MEAC.
For years, the program has been one that has been about excellence. It has produced NBA players such as two-time NBA champion Bob Dandridge and former NBA player Kyle O’Quinn, who is currently playing for Paris Basketball in France. It was also the alma mater of playground basketball legend, Richard “Pee-Wee” Kirkland, who led the Spartans to two CIAA championships and two appearances in the NCAA Division II tournament in the late 1960’s.
In 1995, the Spartans made the Final Four of the Division II Tournament. In 1997, they made the move to Division I. In 2011-12, under head coach Anthony Evans, the Spartans went 26-10, won the MEAC and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. O’Quinn, then a senior, played so well that season, that he was able to parlay that into being selected in the second round of the 2012 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic.
Fast-forward to last season, the COVID year, in which games were being canceled due to the deadly virus that claimed many lives nationwide. That squad was able to win the MEAC championship, and won the First Four matchup against Appalachian State before losing to national powerhouse, Gonzaga, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
This year’s Spartans have been nothing short of spectacular this season, as they have been on a roll with an 19-6 record and are currently 10-2 in the MEAC.
The story starts with their fearless leader, Robert Jones, a native of Queens, New York, who has been a very prominent coach in the conference since replacing Evans in the fall of 2013. Since the beginning of his tenure, Jones has compiled an overall record of 160-125. But in conference play, he has posted a record of 101-34. It’s very simple, it’s all about success with him, but also he makes sure that his players grow into productive young men and helps them become better than when they came in, whether on or off the court.
In regards to the talent, there is plenty of it on the Spartans roster. Everything starts with the senior backcourt of shooting guard Joe Bryant, Jr., the leading scorer at 16.9 points per game and point guard Jalen Hawkins, the second-leading scorer at 13.3 points per game.
In the frontcourt, you have senior forward Kris Bankston, who is a force in the paint and can throw down monster dunks in the post area. Then there’s junior forward Dana Tate, Jr., a very versatile player that can put the ball on the floor and has a penchant for dominating on the floor.
The Spartans have a supporting cast of juniors in guard Christian Ings, jguard/forward Tyrese Jenkins, forward Cahiem Brown, forward Yoro Sidibe, forward Nyzaiah Chambers, guard Daryl Anderson and sophomore guard Terrance Jones.
With all of that talent, the Spartans are the most dangerous squad in their conference. But on Monday night, they couldn’t sustain it. In the very beginning, Norfolk State did all the right things on the defensive end and shot 53.5% from the field and went into halftime leading, 44-36. In the second half, Morgan State stepped up their defense and held their counterparts to 15% shooting from three-point range and 35.7% from the field, which resulted in the Bears walking away with the 85-74 victory.
What that loss showed is that it was a blown opportunity to close out a game. But many teams have their off nights, and on this one, it was a chance for Morgan State, a team with a dismal record of 10-13, to knock off the best team in the conference.
Yesterday, the Spartans came back and rebounded with a 63-59 win over South Carolina State. Now, with just two regular season games left, which will take place at their home gym, at the Joseph G. Echols Memorial Hall, against North Carolina Central and Howard, two other dangerous MEAC teams, the Spartans have a chance to finish off the season with 20 wins and a high seeding in the impending MEAC Tournament, which will be taking place in their city at the Norfolk Scope, during the week of March 8-12.
This season has been one for the ages for the Spartans and there is nowhere for them to go but up. The mission for them is simple: to reach another NCAA Tournament and go even further than they did last year. Anything else will be a letdown for them. The second season is coming and there’s nowhere to go but up.