NORFOLK, VA (WTKR)- As the sun rose in Norfolk on Tuesday morning, the Spartans were also rising to hop a plane to Texas. NSU will face Baylor on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and that Big Dance feeling is starting to feel a little bit more real.
"This is the experience we've been waiting for," junior forward Tyrese Jenkins said. "Last year it was a bubble-type situation. Now we're getting to experience the full thing, so I'm really excited now."
Most of the hay is in the barn, so to speak. The team held its final practice on campus on Monday and the excitement was felt throughout the gym. That only grew as Tuesday's departure approached.
"From one to 10, I would say a 12 right now," smiled senior guard Jalen Hawkins. "It still feels a little bit surreal right now, but I'm still happy and excited."
"The excitement is through the roof," added senior guard Joe Bryant. "We're one step closer to playing Baylor, pretty sure the guys are excited, I'm very excited, Coach (Robert Jones) is excited."
That Bears team that Norfolk State will face will present a tall test for the Spartans. Baylor won the 2021 NCAA Tournament and enters with a record of 26-6, which includes a challenging Big 12 schedule. Despite the stature of Baylor, NSU is not phased.
"Coach said there's no opponent too big, no opponent too small about preparation time," Bryant said. "We've got two days to prepare."
"It's going to be a tough game," Jenkins predicted. "They play gritty like us so it's going to be a good one."
It's the first step in achieving some goals the team has set for March. A MEAC title and NCAA Tournament berth are certainly among those, but the players have made clear that they are aiming higher than just making the field of 68.
"From the beginning of the season, it's been Sweet 16 for us," said Jenkins. "We've been checking off goals all year so it's just another one for us to get."
"We're not going just to go," Bryant noted. "Our main goal is the Sweet 16, but if we can exceed that expectation that's cool, too."
Norfolk State and Baylor tip off at 2:00 PM on Thursday. The Spartans are 0-2 all-time against the Bears and the two programs last met in December of 2014. Robert Jones and company are 24-6 on the campaign.