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Howard is the HBCU becoming college basketball’s offseason champs

Head coach Kenny Blakeney is helping make Howard college basketball’s offseason champs.

Kenny Blakeney took over a Howard men’s basketball program that needed to be rebuilt from the ground up when he was hired ahead of last season. The Bison hadn’t finished above .500 since 2002, and their most recent regular season or conference championship in the MEAC came in 1992. Blakeney’s first season was a staunch reminder of how difficult the task would be: Howard ended the year at 4-29 overall and 1-15 in conference. In every way, the Bison had nowhere to go but up.

For a program that hasn’t had national relevance in so long, Blakeney’s rebuild figured to take years even in the best case scenario. Yet as college basketball continues its eternal offseason in the wake of a global pandemic, you can make a case for Howard as the sport’s offseason champs. Seriously.

Blakeney and Howard drew headlines around the country when five-star recruit Makur Maker chose the Bison over the likes of UCLA, Kentucky, and Memphis back in July. On Thursday, the Bison landed their second high-profile player this summer when Purdue guard Nojel Eastern announced he was transferring to Howard.

Eastern, a 6’7 wing out of Evanston, Illinois, averaged only 4.9 points per game last year, but proved himself as an elite defender. He was considered a top-100 recruit out of high school and mostly needs to fix a broken jump shot before he can reach the next level in his game. Regardless, it’s an impressive get for Howard, especially given that many power conference programs would have loved to get him.

It’s still no guarantee that either Maker or Eastern will be on the court for Howard next season. Maker has opted out of the NBA draft after testing the process, but it’s possible the NCAA will find eligibility issues with the complicated path he took to the Bison. Eastern already tried to transfer to Michigan in May, but was denied because some of his credits didn’t transfer over. Eastern is reportedly applying for a waiver to gain eligibility at Howard this season, which he’ll need if he wants to be in the lineup whenever college hoops resumes.

Even if there are still some obstacles in front of Howard for getting both players on the court in the upcoming season, signing two players to a low-major HBCU that pretty much every program in the country would love to have is undeniably a reason for celebration. Blakeney and Howard are creating real momentum for top athletes to go to HBCUs, and it’s astonishing to watch happen in real time.

Journalist Jamele Hill wrote the case for top athletes to consider HBCUs at The Atlantic back in October. The idea gained more traction in the wake of national protests following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis earlier this summer. Maker didn’t shy away from why he chose an HBCU over more established basketball schools when he spoke to The Undefeated about committing to Howard:

“The reason behind my decision? I dare to be different, and I always consider myself to be a leader. I want to change the current culture and climate that has kept five-star athletes like myself from viewing HBCUs as a viable choice. I have no idea why it’s been over 40 years that not even one five-star basketball player in the United States has decided to play basketball at an HBCU. But I do know that, in this Black Lives Matter movement that’s empowered and assembled many different people across the country and the world, that it won’t be another 40 years until it happens again.”

Other top recruits are also considering HBCUs. The most notable is Mikey Williams, a 6’2 guard out of California who gained notoriety for playing alongside Bronny James before entering high school. Williams is ranked as the No. 3 overall prospect in the class of 2023 and he’s giving HBCUs serious consideration.

Williams’ most recent list of college suitors included five HBCUs and five traditional college basketball powers. Those HBCUs are Tennessee State, Hampton, Alabama State, Texas Southern, and North Carolina Central.

A program like Howard still has a long way to go before it’s competing for the NCAA tournament. Historically Black Colleges and Universities still face an uphill climb competing for top recruits against schools with bigger budgets, better facilities, and a proven track record of sending players to the pros. Regardless, seeing Maker and Eastern pick Howard feels like a major cultural moment that has the potential to grow from here.

Blakeney’s first season at Howard may have been rough, but if the present is any indication, the future for both his program and HBCUs is bright.