With his 6-foot-8-inch frame and long flowing locks, Spencer Levi turns heads as he ducks through low doorways to UNC Pembroke’s classrooms. On the court, the talented senior is attracting national attention with his dominating style of play as a member of the men's basketball team.
After transferring to UNCP in 2018, Levi–a former DIII National Rookie of the Year–has flourished into one of the top players in the country. And much like Levi, the men's program is garnering well-deserved national attention. The Braves sit atop the Conference Carolinas standings and is currently the No. 11 ranked Division II school in the country.
This week's ranking is the highest for the Braves in the program's 30-year NCAA Division II era. The men’s squad has a 14-1 record and is ranked No. 1 in the D2SIDA Southeast Region poll–another historic first for the program.
“We are so proud of our entire Athletics program with many of our teams excelling in our conference and at the national level,” said Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings.
“Coach (Drew) Richards has recruited a strong and talented team to build on the solid foundation in place. I am especially proud that year after year, our student-athletes perform equally strong in the classroom.”
Levi is ecstatic to be a part of the historic run.
"It feels good!" he said. "I've been here four years, and we've been successful despite so much adversity from COVID to changing athletic conferences. I think it's a huge accomplishment to be able to continue that success and further broaden the scope of the university."
Competitive, solid athletic programs are among the many traits UNCP offers, along with an affordable, high-quality education committed to academic success while providing students with interdisciplinary learning and research opportunities and access to cutting-edge facilities.
Athletics Director Dick Christy believes national exposure is the pinnacle of the brand and marketing value that athletics can bring. It energizes campus pride and continues the standard of excellence in all athletic programs. It also adds another strong selling point for recruiters inside and outside athletics. UNCP prides itself on its winning tradition where student-athletes are using this experience to prepare for life after sports.
“I’m very proud of what our men’s basketball program has accomplished so far this season,” Christy said. “As Coach Richards would tell you, we still have a lot of goals still in front of us. But, anytime you can do something that is a first for your program, that is special. We have a fantastic coaching staff and a group of COVID super-seniors who are solely focused on taking the team and the university to heights it has not been before. It is really special to watch.”
Levi, who is on the watch list for Division II National Player of the Year, said UNCP continues to move the needle forward in its standard of excellence. The Missouri native is doing his part by mentoring younger players to pass down traditions and what it takes to maintain a winning program.
"This not only helps our program, but all of our programs as potential recruits see all the different banners which provide a whole new attraction for students wanting to be a part of UNC Pembroke," Levi said. "We have a great coaching staff and support staff from Dick Christy to Chancellor Cummings and our alumni.
"I’m grateful for the individual recognition, but I'm even happier to be a part of the overall team success. What our team is doing is so much bigger and we want to keep that energy going and compete at the highest level."
Wiley Barrett, a member of the Board of Trustees and former player, has been a huge supporter of the program for years. He’s a regular during home games and he follows the team on the road.
“This is wonderful!” Barrett said of the winning streak. “Our guys are so much fun to watch. They’re so competitive. We are excited to be on the map–folks know who we are. They’ve got an opportunity to be really special for the remainder of the season.”
His players have put in the work and earned the national ranking, but Head Coach Drew Richards said the recognition “doesn’t mean a hill of beans” if the team loses its focus.
“It’s a huge honor, but we can’t be focused on that. We’ve got to keep our eye on
the prize,” Richards said. “We can’t lose that drive. We’ve got to keep improving and hopefully, we can continue to have success on the court.”
Richards agreed with Christy, saying successful programs boost recruiting efforts.
“Obviously a great success rate allows the engagement of recruits a little easier. But we are still looking for guys who fit the Braves’ style of play. National polls give you a little more exposure, but we want to identify those high school seniors and transfers who make a good fit in our culture.”