Howard men take aim at ending 30-year NCAA tournament drought


As a national champion while playing at Duke in the early 90s, it’s not lost on Howard men’s basketball coach Kenny Blakeney that the rafters of Burr Gymnasium hold more retired jerseys (12) than NCAA tournament banners (two). Nor does he ignore the perception that Howard is incapable of becoming a hotbed for athletics.

But since joining the program in May of 2019, Blakeney has made it a priority to change that.

From sauntering the sidelines in Balenciaga sweaters and fresh out-of-the-box Jordans to embracing a fast brand of basketball, the shift has been undeniable. Three years in, the Bison has already signed a five-star recruit, raised enough money to build practice courts, signed a lucrative deal with Jordan Brand and finished with a winning record for the first time since 2002.

“It’s all about creating an image and identity, something you can hang your hat on,” Blakeney said. “The idea that Howard can’t have great facilities or win championships or become a household brand has been accepted for too long. We can do it here and we will do it here.”

Entering year four, the Bison has real expectations.

Last season, Howard earned the 2-seed in the MEAC Tournament but failed to reach the postseason after being upset by Coppin State in the first round.

“Last year was a good first step for us, but obviously it didn’t end the way that we hoped it would with us losing to a Coppin team that we felt we were better than,” junior Steve Settle III said. “When you finish like that it kind of takes some of the joy of all that we accomplished away, but we feel like it can still be a good foundation for us to continue to build off of this season.”

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Settle III (13.8 points per game) projects as the leading scorer of a team that returns two of its top four scorers from a season ago and could add a third, Randall Brumant, pending NCAA appeal, but sans leading scorer and sharpshooter Kyle Foster (15.8 points per game).

The Bison will look to sophomore Elijah Hawkins (13 points per game) along with transfers Kobe Dickson (Cornell) and Sidwell Friends alum Jelani Williams (Penn) to help replace Foster’s scoring.

“Losing a special player like Kyle is so tough because he did so much for us last season,” Blakeney said. “But I think that we have a few guys capable of stepping up to fill in the gap in our offense that he left behind.”

Through two games, Howard (1-1) has been a bit of a mixed bag. After pushing Power Five programs like Villanova and Notre Dame last season, the Bison was trounced by a Kentucky team missing three projected starters, including 2022 Naismith player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe, in Monday’s opener, 95-63.

Minus Hawkins, the 2022 MEAC freshman of the year, Howard used a second-half surge from Settle (19 points, seven rebounds) and junior Jordan Wood (19 points, nine rebounds) to slip by the University of D.C. (Division II) 87-74 on Wednesday — after trailing 37-36 at the half.

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For Wood, a player the team views as its X-factor, Wednesday’s performance was a nice bounce back after he went 1-12 from the field at Kentucky. As a freshman, Wood averaged just under 10 points per game before the season was shut down due to a coronavirus outbreak within the team. But last year, he scored just 2.7 points a game as his confidence wavered throughout the year.

This summer, Blakeney challenged Wood to run a marathon in hopes that accomplishing something hard outside of basketball would restore his confidence on the court.

“J-Wood has all the tools man,” Settle III said. “When he’s on, he unlocks [another] dimension for our team. We all believe that his breakthrough is coming. We see it every day in practice.”

If the Bison is to end its 30-year NCAA tournament drought, it will need to protect the ball. Howard finished the season with a negative assist-to-turnover ratio, 14.3 assists per game to 14.7 turnovers per game. Its 14.7 turnovers per game ranked 28th in the nation.

The Bisons’ turnover struggles played a key role in the team’s 2-7 record in one-possession games.

“We just got to keep it simple,” Settle said. “I think that sometimes we all can get caught up in making the home run play and that can be a good thing and a bad thing. Like yes, you always want to make the right play, but adding that little extra spice to it and going for the big play can be helpful too. We just have to find the right balance and learn to pick our spots instead of making it a habit because to get where we want to go, we have to start valuing the ball.”

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