Introductory press conferences are, if nothing else, primetime for optimism for the future. A blank slate, a fresh start, all benefits and no doubt. But all that notwithstanding, the bar for new Howard men’s basketball coach Kenny Blakeney has been set extremely high.
“As I told him when I met with him, I see no reason why we shouldn’t be participating in the NCAA Tournament every year. That’s one of the ambitions of the program,” said Howard President Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick at Monday’s introductory press conference.
“Our expectation is every March we’re going to turn on the television and watch Mr. Blakeney on the sidelines with the rest of the team representing the university well.”
Bear in mind, this is a program that hasn’t finished over .500 since 2001-02; that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1991-92; that hasn’t had consecutive winning seasons since the late ‘80s, more than 30 years ago. But the school believes it’s found the right man to turn that around.
“He has the type of pedigree we’re looking for,” said Frederick. “He’s been at very strong academic institutions, including Harvard and Columbia, and he’s also been coached by some of the best in the business as well.”
A D.C. native, Blakeney was a McDonald’s All-American under Morgan Wootten at DeMatha before playing at Duke for Coach Mike Krzyzewski. He began his coaching career under Lefty Driesell at James Madison, later working under Mike Brey at Delaware before moving to the Ivy League as an assistant, to fellow D.C. area native and Duke player/coach Tommy Amaker at Harvard.
“My first call when we were looking for a coach was to Tommy Amaker,” said Howard Director of Athletics Kery Davis. “And Tommy Amaker said, ‘I only have one name for you: Kenny Blakeney.’”
The challenges of the Ivy League’s high academic standards and lack of traditional athletic scholarships mirror some of those faced at Howard. With power conference programs like Maryland and Georgetown nearby, and even mid-majors like George Washington and American both within the city limits, there’s plenty of competition for talent. But Blakeney — like his high school coach — believes our area is the most talent-rich in the country, estimating there are between 100-120 Division I caliber players coming out of the region every four-year class period.
“I think what we have to do is really get out and show this community that we want to keep these kids here,” he told WTOP. “We want to keep them home. We have a quality, world class education, and we’re going to build and develop an incredible basketball program.”
Now, Blakeney just has to get them to buy in.
“I grew up three miles from where we’re standing right now, on the corner of 4th (St.) and Missouri (Ave. NW),” said Blakeney. “And I can’t name five players that I know that have gone to Howard.”
He’ll have his work cut out for himself out of the gates, as he may lose all three of last year’s top scorers, who accounted for 53.6 points per game. MEAC Player of the Year RJ Cole and Charles Williams each declared for the NBA Draft, but even if Cole stays in school, it looks like he’ll transfer, likely to either Alabama or UConn. Meanwhile, third-leading scorer Chad Lott is reportedly headed to South Alabama as a grad transfer.
While introductions are not a time to get heavy on specifics, Blakeney made it clear that the first priority for his vision — before schemes, or conditioning, or recruiting — is establishing a mindset and building relationships.
“There just has to be a mutual respect between coaches, staff and the players. Once we establish that, I think we can do anything together,” he said.
In his prepared remarks, Blakeney read a quotation from Howard alum and Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison, which he repeated for emphasis.
“As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.”
Monday was a day for dreaming on the Hilltop. And while Blakeney was more cautious about his own expectations — “If we can check the boxes at the end of the game and see that we’ve done our best, regardless of what that looks like in terms of the score, I think we’ll feel good about our results” — he admitted freely that he’s a dreamer. The road to transforming that into a reality begins tomorrow.
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