This summer, Last Word on Basketball looks to profile college basketball teams and their journey through a season played during a pandemic. Our previous installment took a look at Delaware from the CAA. Previous pieces in this series looked at Nicholls State, Mount St. Mary’s, and South Dakota. The next program in our series is Norfolk State basketball. Robert Jones just finished his eighth season leading the Spartans, and he is no stranger to success there.
Norfolk State hasn’t finished below fourth in the league during Jones’ time there. Furthermore, the Spartans have finished below .500 just once, including two 20-win seasons. He has taken the Norfolk State basketball program to six postseason appearances, including this past season’s NCAA Tournament. The Spartans faced the same protocols as they traversed through the season, but were fortunate enough to avoid a pause once games began in 2020-21. I had the chance to speak with Jones on how Norfolk State fought through everything on their way to a championship.
The Story of the 2020-21 Norfolk State Basketball Program
Getting Off the Ground
All kinds of concerns abounded as preparations began for the 2020-21 college basketball season. Every league had decisions to make about their protocols and whether playing was even feasible and worth the risks. In the MEAC, UMES and Bethune-Cookman decided it was best not to play this season. However, Coach Jones knew the same fate wouldn’t happen at Norfolk State.
“There wasn’t really anything to be worried about on my end,” Jones said. “I knew our administration was committed to playing. Some of the other teams that opted out, we knew they were going to opt out anyway.”
Without concerns that no basketball would be played in Norfolk, the Spartans prepared for the season as best they could given the circumstances. Unlike many other programs across the country, Norfolk State played all seven of their allotted non-conference games, going 4-3, including a win over eventual CAA regular-season champ James Madison.
“We were fortunate enough that, we had a small outbreak before the season,” Jones stated, “but we didn’t have any outbreaks during the season. We were able to have some kind of continuity.”
With a full non-conference schedule completed, the time came for conference games.
Adjusting to the MEAC Schedule
While Norfolk State basketball was able to avoid pauses, they still had to deal with the fact that their opponents may end up having them.
“That was the tougher part because we did have that situation a couple of times,” Coach said. “You prepare all week to play and opponent and then you don’t because…someone pops a positive. It was a downer for the kids and the coaches, too, because we want to compete. At the same time, we understood that this was a whole different kind of season and this is going to happen.”
This was the case for NSU right away in MEAC play, as their opening series against Howard was canceled due to COVID protocols, with the Bison opting out of the remainder of the season just a month later. However, the Spartans carried on, adjusting to the MEAC’s scheduling changes that included a division format and back-to-back games against the same opponent.
“I know a lot of coaches pushed for not having divisions and just trying to play everybody,” he stated. “By the time [the MEAC] did the back-to-back Friday and Saturday change, a lot of other leagues had already done that, so we were assuming they were going to do that anyway.”
Adjustments had to be made in such a small amount of time. However, Coach Jones felt his team was better equipped to handle it than most.
“Are you going to throw everything at them on Friday,” said Jones, “or do you throw some things at them on Friday and hope it’s good enough to win and then throw the rest at them on Saturday? There was a lot of chess going on. It was probably easier for us not to use everything one day because we have so much.”
Taking the Championship
The MEAC adjusted their conference tournament to six teams, seeded according to the final division standings. The Spartans had earned the second seed from the North Division and were set to play in the opening round.
“When you’re in the tournament, you realize there’s a big prize at stake no matter if there’s 12 teams playing, eight teams playing, or six teams playing,” Coach stated. “It’s the same mindset year in and year out to get to the championship game.”
Norfolk State basketball dispatched North Carolina Central by 29, which was bound to set them up against the South Division’s top team in North Carolina A&T. However, the Aggies unfortunately were sent home before playing due to the league’s COVID protocols. The Spartans vaulted into the conference championship game, downing fellow North Division foe Morgan State 71-63.
“That was great for the program and the city,” Jones said.
The celebration didn’t last long, though, as Norfolk State was off to the Indianapolis area for the NCAA Tournament.
“We won the championship Saturday afternoon,” stated Coach, “and Saturday night we were on a plane to Indiana. Once we arrived, we had to quarantine for the next day and a half until our COVID tests came back negative. It was the most normal abnormal week there is.”
After all the preparation, the Spartans were set to play Appalachian State in the First Four.
Reflecting on the Norfolk State Basketball Season
Norfolk State defeated Appalachian State 54-53 in their First Four game. They became the only current MEAC program to win more than one NCAA Tournament game. The Spartans advanced to play top-seeded Gonzaga, where their season would end a few days later. However, it didn’t detract from how much it meant to get a win in the game’s biggest spotlight.
“Any year to get an NCAA Tournament win is tremendous,” Jones said. “A lot of good players and coaches have either never been to the tournament or gotten a win there. To be able to capture both in one setting is just tremendous for the program, players, coaches, and administration. It’s always good to see your name advancing in that bracket.”
Even in a championship season, there are always things to be taken away as teams look to move forward. For Jones, it was all about how resilient his players were as they faced the challenges of the season.
“We were playing during a pandemic and we were able to get to the finish line and get the ultimate prize at that finish line,” stated Jones. “They had to take away their social life of a normal college student. A lot of kudos to those young men with the sacrifices they made…so it wouldn’t put the team in jeopardy.”
Robert Jones has built a consistent winner at Norfolk State. His group didn’t let that stop because of the pandemic last season. The Spartans are primed to continue to contend in the MEAC moving forward. Heading into 2021-22, they know just how much they can handle as they do so thanks to their poise from last season.