App State vs. Norfolk State: what to watch for in Mountaineers’ first NCAA tourney game in 21 years

App+State%27s+basketball+team+celebrates+its+first+ever+Sun+Belt+title+at+the+team%27s+welcome-home+gathering+outside+the+Holmes+Center+in+Boone+March+9.+Junior+guard+Adrian+Delph+%28center%29+holds+the+conference+championship+trophy.

Andy McLean

App State’s basketball team celebrates its first ever Sun Belt title at the team’s welcome-home gathering outside the Holmes Center in Boone March 9. Junior guard Adrian Delph (center) holds the conference championship trophy.

Dan Davidson, Associate Sports Editor

App State takes on the champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Norfolk State, on Thursday in the third game of the NCAA Tournament’s First Four. The Mountaineers and Spartans will tip-off in historic Assembly Hall, home of the Indiana Hoosiers, at 8:40 p.m. The game will air on truTV. Top-seeded Gonzaga awaits the winner in the round of 64. 

Norfolk State, an HBCU, enters the tournament on a six-game win streak and is 16-7 overall. The Spartans won their conference tournament in just two games after their semifinal matchup with North Carolina A&T was canceled due to positive COVID tests among the Aggies. It has been more than one month since the Spartans lost. 

The MEAC Championship victory earned Norfolk State its first ticket to the Big Dance since 2012. The last and only time the Spartans participated in the NCAA Tournament, they knocked off No. 2 seed Missouri as a No. 15 seed, and became one of just eight teams ever to accomplish that feat. 

The Spartans are led by head coach Robert Jones, who was an assistant on that 2012 team. Jones has led Norfolk State to a .750 winning percentage in MEAC play in his eight years as the Spartans’ head coach, and was the 2019 MEAC Coach of the Year.

App State enters the tournament after winning four games in four days to capture its first ever Sun Belt tournament title. The NCAA Tournament appearance is the program’s first since 2000, when then-head coach Buzz Peterson took the Mountaineers to the Big Dance. 

Graduate transfer guard Michael Almonacy took home the Sun Belt tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award after he averaged 21.8 points, 3.8 assists and 6.5 rebounds, including a 32-point career-high championship performance. Almonacy also hit a Sun Belt record 20 3-pointers throughout the tournament. 

Junior guard Adrian Delph averages 13.2 points and 4.5 rebounds on the year, while senior guard Justin Forrest enters the tournament averaging 13 points and 3.4 rebounds. 

The Spartans are one of the more experienced teams in the country: their top seven scorers are all juniors and seniors. They are led by the experienced guard combo of junior Joe Bryant Jr. and senior Devante Carter. Bryant Jr. averages 11.6 ppg and 4.3 rpg, and was named the MEAC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after dropping a combined 47 points in two games. Carter averages a team-high 15.5 ppg along with 5.3 rpg and 4 apg on the season. 

Norfolk State prefers a fast-paced playstyle in which they attack the rim relentlessly and attempt over 21 threes per game. The downhill pace of the Spartans can often get their opponent into foul trouble. This contrasts greatly from App State, who prefers to control the tempo, slow the game down and grind it out on defense. 

In addition to their experience, the Spartans are a solid 3-point shooting team, knocking down 36.8% of their attempts as a team. Their main weakness is their lack of size, but the Spartans have managed to narrowly out-rebound their opponents throughout the season. 

It’s the first ever meeting between the two programs.