The Washington Post

After their 31-year wait, Bison prep for Jayhawks

Howard is a No. 16 seed and will take on Kansas, the defending champion


Following a dramatic, comefrom-behind win in the Mid-eastern Athletic Conference tournament final, Howard will make its long-awaited return to the NCAA tournament as the No. 16 seed in the West Region. The Bison are headed to Des Moines, where they will face top-seeded Kansas at 2 p.m. Thursday.

Saturday’s triumph left the Bison at 22-12, two wins shy of the 1986-87 team’s mark of 24-4, but this season could be viewed as a greater success because that team failed to reach the NCAA tournament. Howard’s 2023 bid ends a 31-year absence from the tournament.

Kansas (27-7), the defending national champion, is coming off a 76-56 loss to Texas in the Big 12 title game. The Jayhawks have been without Coach Bill Self, who had been hospitaliz­ed with a heart issue. He was discharged Sunday and is expected to rejoin his team before Thursday’s game.

With fourth-year coach Kenny Blakeney at the helm, the Bison have dispelled the notion that Howard is simply a top spot for Black academia. In the summer of 2020, Howard took center stage when five-star recruit Makur Maker announced his commitment. Maker remains the highest-rated player in the modern era to play for an HBCU.

Despite going just 1-4 with Maker, who would leave after one season to pursue profession­al opportunit­ies overseas, the school’s momentum has continued as the Bison have increased their winning percentage the past two seasons under Blakeney. He was named MEAC Coach of the Year last week.

“You always got work to do, but every year of our tenure has been about laying another layer of the foundation,” Blakeney said. “We don’t get to this moment without the bumps and bruises we took. . . . It’s all a progressio­n. When you are building something special, you can’t skip steps.”

The Bison are led by sophomore guard Elijah Hawkins. Last season’s MEAC freshman of the year averaged a team-high 13 points and ranks 11th in the nation at 5.9 assists per game. Hawkins was named first-team ALL-MEAC.

“It’s a blessing to be able to win the MEAC and then go on and represent and play for something bigger than us,” Hawkins said. “There’s a lot of Howard alums and fans that either haven’t seen or can’t remember what it was like to be a fan of a tournament team, and now they get that.”

Freshman forward Shy Odom earned MEAC rookie of the year honors and was named conference tournament MVP. In three tournament wins, he averaged 12.7 points and six rebounds on 68 percent shooting.

The Bison use a 10-man rotation and often implement complete five-man substituti­ons. As a result, Howard has six players who average 8.8 points or more.

The resurgence of Howard’s program has led to an uptick in interest. Notable dignitarie­s, celebritie­s and profession­al athletes from around the D.C. area have become regulars at Burr Gymnasium.

“Just to establish some roots of a fine team is the biggest importance of this championsh­ip,” said Larry Spriggs, a Howard alum who played in the NBA from 1981 to 1986. “It’s been a lot of tough years since we were here, but this is a team to be proud of. It makes guys like me and my teammates want to come back and be around the program and do whatever we can to help.”

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