By Siera Jones
Over six months after their season was heartbreakingly cut short in March, the Norfolk State University’s men’s basketball team is gearing up for a new season after enduring months of uncertainty. The Spartan men have conquered the waiting game, and the start of their season on Jan. 2 is steadily approaching.
Their season will start nearly eight months after the global pandemic brought the remainder of their season to an end. The Spartan men bravely faced the fateful news delivered by Head Coach Robert Jones, NSU President Javuane Adams-Gaston, and the then Athletic Director Marty Miller, but behind the closed doors of their locker room, raw emotions at the loss of their year-long goals were shown freely.
“Just to see these young men cry was very hard,” recalled Coach Jones. “We worked all summer and all year to the point of trying to win a championship, and then we didn’t get the chance to compete”
The momentum carried by the team throughout the season abruptly dissolved into a period of uncertainty as they waited months to find out if, and when their next competition would take place.
“It was a tedious process, and we had a lot of uncertainty but once we got a little more clarity we got geared up and ready to go again,” Coach Jones said.
While maintaining their skills during a global pandemic was a challenge for the team, they held onto their winning mentality. As soon as the Spartan men received approval to begin training at the end of September, they were prepared to work harder than ever to prepare for the season.
“Mentally the guys are focused on playing but physically we are way behind where we would normally be at this point,” Coach Jones explained. “Some guys came in in worse shape than others because of the inactivity for so many months. COVID-19 kind of effected their ability to go out and play during the summer, so there was a lot of catching up to do, and at this point, we’re still catching up.”
With so little time to prepare for the season, the Spartans can’t afford any setbacks. On and off the court, precautions are constantly taken to protect the team from COVID-19, and each player is drilled on the importance of health safety.
“We tell our guys that they have to be real ambassadors of all the protocols that are in place,” Coach Jones said.
Coach Jones is relying on both new and returning players to work together and safely prepare for the season. The team will usher in an impressive recruiting class including Mustafa Lawrence, J.J. Matthews, and Jalen Hawkins.
Lawrence is a 6-foot senior guard from Fresno State who will be a great addition to the Spartan arsenal. 6-foot-9 redshirt senior J.J. Matthews is a forward from Arkansas State and is expected to be one of the go-to players on the court in the 2020-2021 season. Jalen Hawkins, a
6-foot-2 redshirt junior guard from Robert Morris University is likewise a player whose talent will be regularly be utilized by the team.
“J.J. Mathews will probably be one of the best forwards in the league, and one of the better forwards we’ve had in a few years,” Coach Jones said excitedly. “Mustafa Lawrence is a great guard, and we expect a lot of things from him. And we have Jalen Hawkins, and we expect a lot of good things out of him too. Those three are the new-comers that you should definitely keep your eye on.”
The returning players are more hungry than ever for a chance to compete in the national tournament this season.
“Joe Bryant is our most statistically accomplished player returning from last year,” Coach Jones said.
Junior guard Joe Bryant earned Preseason Second Team All-MEAC honors for the 2021 season, and his team is relying on his leadership on and off the court as the season approaches.
When discussing his expectations for some of his other strongest returners, Coach Jones said, “Devante Carter is someone we’re looking for great things from this year, along with Tyrese Jenkins. We’re looking for him to take the next step in his career this year.”
In his first year with the Spartans, sophomore Tyrese Jenkins proved to be a great asset. Competing in 24 games throughout the season, he earned recognition as a member of the MEAC All-Rookie Team and received MEAC Rookie of the Week honors on two occasions. Senior Devante Carter was also a key player for the Spartans. Making 13 starts and competing in 28 games, he averaged 9.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.8 steals per game in the 2019-2020 season.
As the season opener against Coppin State on Jan. 2 approaches, the Spartan men are hopeful for success despite the obstacles they’ve faced in the past year.
“We have to play catch up from this point until our first game,” Coach Jones said. “It’s going to be tough but a lot of teams in the country are playing catch up was well, so the playing field is somewhat level. Some teams we play started earlier than we did, some started later, some have gone through quarantine periods, so I don’t think anyone has had consistent practices since the summer.”
The Spartans refuse to make any excuses and are determined not to lower the standard of excellence that they’ve maintained throughout the years, regardless of the pandemic.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to be one of the best teams in the conference for many years,” Coach Jones explained. “We believe that we will be one of the best teams year in and year out and that we will compete for a championship year in and year out. There are no excuses, and we’re going to hold ourselves to that.”