Howard is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 31 years. The Bison won both the MEAC regular season and conference tournament titles for just the second time in program history and are set up to play one of the best teams in the country, Kansas, on Thursday in the opening round of the Big Dance.
In order to look at how Howard got here, we have to go back a few years to the hiring of the head coach who brought HU out of an abyss of irrelevance that stretched for almost three decades.
The year is 2019. Howard Head Basketball Coach Kenny Blakeney is in his first season in charge of the HU program and has a monumental task in front of him.
Kenny Blakeney had completely turned the program around in his four years / Photo: The Washington Post
Howard hasn’t posted a winning season since 2001-02 and the majority of players from a team that went 17-17 in 2018-19 are gone.
Fast forward to the end of the 2019-20 season, Howard finishes 4-29 with a single conference win, at one point had a 19 game losing streak and lost 18 games by double-digits.
A year later, Howard calls off its season after just five games due to COVID. The Bison were likely on their way to a similar campaign anyway, starting off 1-4 with all four losses by 14 points or more.
Now it’s Blakeney’s third season. Entering 2021-22 Blakeney knows he could start feeling some pressure if he doesn’t start showing some upward trajectory. Fortunately for him and HU, that’s exactly what he delivers.
Howard goes 16-13 in Blakeney’s third year, finishing second in the MEAC and losing just four games by double-digits.
Dramatic improvement from year two to three. But can those close losses turn into wins in year four?
The Bison stumbled out of the gate in 2022-23. After going 6-6 last season in non-conference play, Howard went 7-9, turning around a tough 4-8 start to the season.
Now, since that 4-8 start, the Bison are 18-4 and have won 14 of the last 16 games they have played.
Howard finished 11-3 in the MEAC to win the outright regular season title for the first time since 1987. The conference title came down to one game in D.C. on the final day of the regular season against second-place Norfolk State. In that game, HU dominated, winning by 20 points after leading by as many as 27.
Howard won its first MEAC regular season title with a clinching win over Norfolk State / Photo: Howard University
Nine days later, Howard beat Norfolk State again. This time with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line, in what was a dramatic 65-64 victory.
In the span of nine days, Kenny Blakeney and the Howard Bison ended two streaks that had lasted for over 30 years. They won a regular season conference title and a conference tournament title.
Howard beat Norfolk State to advance to its first NCAA Tournament in 31 years / Photo: MEAC Conference
The Bison heard their name called during Sunday’s Selection Show on CBS as a 16-seed in the West Region set to take on 1-seed Kansas on Thursday afternoon in Des Moines, IA.
In 1992, the last time Howard was in the NCAA Tournament, they also played KU, with the Jayhawks coming out on top 100-67.
It’s only happened once in history, but there is precedence for a 16-seed defeating a 1-seed. In the 2018 NCAA Tournament, UMBC defeated Virginia 74-54 in what is widely considered the biggest upset in college basketball history.
On Thursday, Howard will look to repeat history and I honestly think they have a better chance than most 16-seeds to do so.
The Bison play a seldom-seen rotation style of basketball. Blakeney will often sub on five new players at a time, keeping his team fresh and out of foul trouble throughout a game. In fact, you’ll rarely see any Howard player exceeding 30 minutes played in a game.
Very few teams in the country, if any, can say that.
This game will likely come down to the play of Elijah Hawkins, the top point guard in the MEAC and First Team All-Conference selection. Hawkins led Howard in assists in 28 of their 34 games this season and led the team in scoring with 13 PPG. If he plays well and takes care of the basketball, I don’t see why Howard wouldn’t be within striking distance of KU as the game moves into the second half.
KU won the 2022 National Championship and will face off with Howard to open up the 2023 Tournament / Photo: ESPN
Regardless of what happens in Thursday’s game, Howard has had the dream season it so desperately needed.
In 2022-23, the Bison exceeded their win total from the prior three seasons combined, won its first regular season conference title in 36 years and made it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 31 years.
What Kenny Blakeney has done with HU is nothing short of remarkable. Howard basketball is back. Now, how long can they dance?