After two days of preliminary rounds of basketball action– and some modest partying and networking– the 71st Annual CIAA Basketball Tournament begins in earnest today when the league’s top two players take the court Thursday evening.

CIAA Player of the Year, Johnson C. Smith University’s 6’ 7” senior forward Stedmon Lemon, leads the league in scoring, averaging 21.5 points a game. His team faces Livingstone College in a 7 p.m. matchup. Right behind Lemon is Virginia Union’s 6’ 3” junior guard Ray Anderson, who averages 20.7 points and will lead his team in the 9 p.m. matchup against Shaw University.

CIAA basketball tournament hbcu sports 2016
T. Cooper Hull Photography

Observers wonder if either of the two (or both) can become the next player from the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, one of the nation’s oldest athletic conferences, to make a splash in the NBA. All of this is happening in Charlotte, N.C., which is still feeling the excitement of its Cam Newton-quarterbacked team playing in the Super Bowl. Now, comes the weeklong festival of R&B, Hip Hop and basketball— the centerpiece of which is this five-day Division II conference showcase, which has featured some of the all-time greats.

The pioneers for Lemon and Anderson include Chicago Bulls forward Charles Oakley and four-time NBA defensive player of the year, Detroit Pistons forward Ben Wallace, both of Virginia Union; Baltimore Bullets and New York Knicks guard Earl “the Pearl Monroe” of Winston-Salem State; and Boston Celtics guard Sam Jones of North Carolina Central University. The latest CIAA star to shine in the NBA was Division II Player of the Year Ronald “Flip” Murray, who played at Shaw University from 2000 to 2002, and became a scoring machine mainly for the Milwaukee Bucks and Seattle Supersonics in a 12-year NBA career.