Guard Brandon Tunnell poured in career-high points in the title game, and wing Darion Pellum was named the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament's outstanding player. Yet Hampton University wouldn't be in the NCAA tournament without the efforts of its quartet of big men.
The foursome of Charles Funches, Danny Agbelese, Koron Reed and Milade Lola-Charles toil in relative anonymity in the Pirates' mix-and-match frontcourt, which bothers them not a bit.
"This year we came together, and it was really all about getting a ring," Funches said Monday as the Pirates (24-8) prepared to play No. 1 seed Duke. "That was our goal from the get-go, and we accomplished that goal by being unselfish."
The unselfishness of the Pirates' 'bigs' was on display last week at the MEAC tournament, particularly in Saturday's 60-55 win against two-time champ Morgan State in the championship game.
Morgan's 6-foot-8, 240-pound Kevin Thompson had scored 46 points in the quarterfinal and semifinal games, on 18-for-25 shooting. But he would have had more room to maneuver in a phone booth than he did versus the Pirates in the title game.
Thompson finished with eight points and made just 2 of 9 shots as the Pirates' big men, with some help from their guards, crowded him, contested shots and made him pass the ball out of double teams.
"They were the reason that we won that game," HU coach Ed Joyner Jr. said. "For as much as Brandon, Pellum and Kwame (Morgan) do for us, if we don't contain Thompson, if we don't do what we do to Thompson, we don't win. I don't think they get enough credit."
Each member of the foursome has a different skill set. Funches, a 6-8 senior, is the leading scorer (10.7 ppg) and rebounder (7.8 rpg) of the group. Agbelese, a 6-9 junior college transfer, is an exceptional shot blocker (101) and periodically fierce rebounder (6.1 rpg).
Reed, an athletic 6-7 sophomore, is just beginning to tap into his potential. Lola-Charles, a 6-10 redshirt senior, is counted on for his length and effort on defense.
Wesley Dunning, a 6-7 sophomore transfer, is an adjunct member of the frontline, since he can play a little power forward as well as small forward, depending on lineups and matchups.
"Our role is simple," Agbelese said. "Block shots, rebound, help off screens, play defense. Whenever one of us is tired, another one comes in. That's the advantage to having extra role players, extra big men. Instead of having three, we basically have five."
One of Joyner's primary rules is: Play until you're tired. He said that his frontcourt players have embraced the message and rarely push themselves to the point where individual fatigue affects team effort.
"They care about winning and they don't mind doing it by committee," Joyner said. "One thing I love about those kids is they're each other's biggest fans. When they come out of the game, they're telling each other what needs to be done, what's next."
Joyner credits a good deal of the frontcourt's development to assistant coach Harvey Grant. The former NBA standout is in his first season with the Pirates and brings instant credibility to the court.
"On any successful team, there's role players," Grant said. "A role player is just as important as the guy who's getting 30 points. If you can concentrate on rebounding and blocking shots and playing defense, that's your job. The other guys, like Pellum and Kwame, their job is to play defense and score. I tell them that if everybody does their job, you've got a great chance to win the ball game and that should be your goal."
Said Joyner: "We knew that some of the things that they were going to do would take a while, but with him being able to tell them certain things on a day-to-day basis, I saw their confidence shoot up sky-high in a day. Each day, they knew they were better."
The Pirates' frontcourt measures progress against the top-seeded Blue Devils and their 'bigs:' 6-10 brothers Mason and Miles Plumlee, 6-11 Ryan Kelly and 6-8 Kyle Singler, the all-conference senior who swings between the perimeter and interior.
"Duke's 'bigs,' they're human," Agbelese said. "Our last game, it was Kevin Thompson. Even though he's at Morgan State, he could probably do his damage in the ACC. Kyle O'Quinn (at Norfolk State), the same thing.
"Duke doesn't depend on their 'bigs' like Morgan State and Norfolk State. They play their roles, just like us. We just can't let them get offensive rebounds and easy buckets down low."
Fighting for position, screening for teammates and defending is tough, nasty work that doesn't show up on the stat sheet. But it helped get the Pirates a conference title and their first NCAA berth since 2006.
"I don't even ask what my numbers are at the end of the day," Funches said. "As long as we got the W, I'm satisfied. As long as I've got the ring, because everybody's ring is the same, I'm satisfied."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times