Tourney Talk: CHD sits down with North Carolina A&T coach Cy Alexander

On Saturday North Carolina A&T had a three point win over Morgan State in the MEAC tournament title game to earn an automatic bid to this week’s NCAA tournament. The Aggies went 12-20 in 2012, but bounced back in 2013 to claim the school’s first NCAA tourney bid since 1995.  Earlier today Jon Teitel got to speak with Coach Cy Alexander about what it feels like to make the tourney in his very 1st year on the sideline in Greensboro.

You had a 54-point loss to Cincinnati back in November: how has the team been able to get past such a blowout? We chalked it up as a bad night where we were intimidated by their big men early on and missed a few shots, and it went downhill from there. I have never even seen the tape because there is nothing positive I could get out of that from a coaching standpoint, so we just moved on.

Adrian Powell was named 2013 conference tourney MVP after blocking a potential game-tying shot in the final seconds of the three point conference tourney title game win over Morgan State.  What makes him such a great player, and where does that rank among your team’s best defensive plays of the season? Adrian is a rhythm player: if he gets it going, he can blow up and have a really good offensive night. It took me a while to figure out who our go-to guys were, but after seven or eight games I realized that we had to get AP about 14 shots per game.

It is incumbent on me as his coach to get him going, so I will live with a few misses in a row because he can come right back after a TV timeout and make five in a row. The key is to stay positive in him and believe that he will come through for us. He made two big free throws for us in the conference tourney semis against Delaware State to ice the game for us. He was in the right place at the right time for the block in the tourney final. DeWayne Jackson was really hurting us so we went with a box-and-one in the second half to try to stop him. I put Adrian on him last so that he would not have to chase DeWayne defensively and then get tired on offense.

You lost four of your final six regular season games before winning the conference tourney: are you concerned that your team might not be playing its best basketball of the season right now? Not at all: I think we are actually playing our best basketball right now. We lost at South Carolina State, which was one of the worst losses of my career. I worked there for 16 years and led them to five NCAA tourneys, so I was totally devastated because I had preached to our team all week about how they were better than their record indicated and that there would be a lot of pomp and circumstance at their Senior Night.

The turning point was when we went to NC Central and played one of our best games of the season despite losing by four points, because that gave me the blueprint for how to beat NC Central. Norfolk State hit a big shot right before halftime that we were unable to recover from, but we talked from day one of the conference tourney about getting to first base by beating Florida A&M, and then getting to second base by winning our second game, and so on. We lost to Morgan State earlier by three points but we should have beat them. Our defense stood up and got a three point win. We are playing well from a mental toughness standpoint, and believe we can play with anyone.

You were an assistant to Coach AB Williamson at Howard.  What made him such a good coach, and what is the most important thing that you ever learned from him? I was very blessed to work for him from a very early age (21 or 22). AB gave me the responsibility to coach. Most young assistants are just focused on recruiting players, but one of my strengths is to break down film and figure out what an opponent is trying to do from an offensive standpoint. I got to give a lot of input into our defensive game plan and be an on-the-floor coach, which helped spur my career.

You play Liberty in Dayton tomorrow, how do you prepare for a team with only 48 hours of advance notice, and how do you like your chances? Trust me: it is hard! You just have to focus on what you do very well, so we will try to pick out two or three things that Liberty likes to do and dissect them and figure out what you can do to curtail them. They have a pair of guards who can shoot the three very well, and they like to set a lot of ball screens that we will try to disrupt. We also have to block out and keep their ferocious big guys off the boards.  They are just warriors and really get after it on the glass, so we have to be physically tough and play good transition defense.