Let’s just say that last season delivered largely a winter of discontent to the D.C. area on the men’s college basketball scene.
Maryland and Georgetown posted losing records in the same season for the first time since 1969 — months before the arrival of Lefty Driesell and years before John Thompson Jr. came to campus. George Mason and George Washington both exited the Atlantic 10 Tournament without posting victories at the Capital One Arena. American University finished last in the Patriot League and Navy came up short in the PL’s Tournament Championship Game.
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Only one school enjoyed a warm winter: Howard finished 16-13, the program’s first winning record since 2001-02. The Bison also went 9-5 in the MEAC two winters after finishing 1-15 in conference play. But head coach Kenneth Blakeney has just begun turning around things at Burr Gymnasium.
The good news is that the fourth-year coach returns his duo from DeMatha Catholic High School: 6-foot-10 forward Steve Settle III was second on the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots as a sophomore last winter, while guard Elijah Hawkins started 26 games as a freshman and ran the offense while posting a team-high 5.6 assists per game. However, both combined for 55 of the Bison’s returning 68 (of 145) starts from last season.
“We’re a very young and inexperienced team. I think when people watch us or we see ourselves and we try to evaluate we definitely see some potential,” Blakeney said. “But we also understand that there are going to be some growing pains as we move forward.”
The ingredients may be new, but there’s definitely talent that includes transfers Jelani Williams (Penn) and Kobe Dickson (Cornell) from the Ivy League, while Reece Brown (UNLV) and Talin Lewis (USC) have competed in the Mountain West and Pac-12 Conferences respectively.
While there may be a lack of familiarity with the Bison program and the MEAC, there is potential on this roster.
“I really like this group I think we have an incredible high character group with a high basketball IQ,” Blakeney said. “It’s just going to be how soon can we connect all of the dots and make this thing gel.”
The Bison also added D.C. native and ex-Maryland guard Marcus Dockery to the mix. The junior averaged 3.9 minutes over 22 games played in two years for the Terps and has impressed his new coach.
“I love his ability to put the ball in the basket. I think he has the high-major talent to be able to do that,” Blakeney said. “The difficult shots for him are shots that I’m gonna have to live with and we’re gonna have to live with as a program because he’s such a guy who can put it in the basket.”
The schedule offers plenty of quality (preseason No. 4 Kentucky in the opener) and quantity (five games in nine days followed by the three-game Paradise Jam Tournament in the U.S. Virgin Islands).
“I think the big thing is just to understand and learn how to grow and take steps each day,” Blakeney said. “We play every other day for the first four games. For us, it’s going to be how do we improve over that four game stretch.”
Howard rode a high-octane offense to a second place MEAC finish last year. They led the conference in scoring and assist-to-turnover ratio, but their ability to match-and build-on last winter’s 16-win season will hinge on the other end of the floor, as well as on the glass.
“My concerns are still my concerns that I’ve had in the past: Can we defend and can we rebound?” Blakeney said. “If we can eliminate second-chance points and get the first original stop, I think it allows us to have that many more possessions on the offensive end to try to put pressure on teams.”
The Bison visit Rupp Arena in Kentucky on Nov. 7.
Let a new winter — hopefully one not of area discontent — begin.
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