Team preview: North Carolina A&T

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

There are 18 letters between A and T; that's more than two-thirds of the alphabet, a long way. As he attempts to overhaul the lost fortunes of the league's former kings, fourth-year North Carolina A&T coach Jerry Eaves is moving through the letters one at a time, step by step.

"Three years ago, I started at A," Eaves said. "Didn't start at S, F or B. We started at A, and we're working our way through ... and we're doing it the appropriate way, we're trying to bring in quality people. Things are definitely going in the correct direction."

Grade-wise, North Carolina A&T was the league's undisputed A-plus program back in the 1980s, representing the league in seven consecutive NCAA Tournaments from 1982-1988. But after an up-and-down era in the '90s and the early 2000s, culminating in a 1-26 disaster in 2002-03, the school turned to former Louisville standout and NBA veteran Eaves. Under his tutelage, his Aggies have slowly moved forward, crawling from 11th to ninth to eighth.

As 2005-06 unfolded, however, it appeared at first like a step back into the murky MEAC basement. A&T dropped its first 13 games a season ago -- including 0-10 in a grueling non-conference schedule that included trips to Cincinnati and Hawaii, and losses in the first three games of its league schedule. But there were glimpses of breakout play -- touched off by a nail-biting ESPN2-televised 69-67 home win against Bethune-Cookman on Jan. 16, the Aggies enjoyed their first three-game win streak in four years.
That mini run would account for half of A&T's victory total for 2005-06.

"I probably had more starting lineups than NBA teams," Eaves said. "Every time we got on a roll, I'd lose a starter. We were snake-bit in terms of injuries, and we've gone through all the growing pains that happen when you do it with freshmen."

But with a scant 15 wins in his first 72 games, Eaves insists that he has the full support of the administration and community as he structures his patience-first program his way: freshmen over quick-fix JUCOs, mandated time away from hoops to improve any academic shortcomings, and a 100 percent graduation rate. While the win total hasn't caught up yet, the attendance numbers bear witness. With a home gate of more than 3,900 per game, the school averaged nearly double its nearest MEAC competitor (Bethune Cookman, 2,494) last year. If he rebuilds it, they will come.

"We have the best fans in the MEAC," Eaves said. "Ask any coach around the league, they'll tell you that."

So what's next? Who will step up this year? Eaves is promising a more up-tempo style, increased depth,
and a premium on team play as he enters Step D of his A&T project.

"Most of my players won't play more than 24 minutes," Eaves said. "Were going to do this as a team; everyone's going to be held accountable. That's why we don't have names on the back of our uniforms, just like we did at Louisville."