View from the Hilltop: James Daniel’s lost season

Will Howard’s star return after missing most of his senior year?

At “The Mecca” — and in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) — this was supposed to be the season of James Daniel. The storyline was easy to predict: The nation’s leading scorer a year ago would be the MEAC Player of the Year. He would lead Howard to its first berth in the NCAA tournament in a quarter-century. And he would leave the Hilltop as the all-time leading scorer in league history (he needs 343 points).

But on Senior Day on Monday, Daniel walked out onto the floor at Burr Gymnasium on crutches. He was just three days removed from surgery to repair a bone that was chipped when he injured his ankle during a practice before the start of the season.

Daniel, who will graduate in May after playing in just two games this season, is weighing his options.

As a medical redshirt, he can return to Howard next season and play as a graduate senior, getting the chance to finish his college career as Howard’s all-time leading scorer, which would likely guarantee his No. 11 jersey a spot in the rafters alongside those of other great players in school history. If he does return, he would come back to a point-guard heavy team, with highly touted recruit R.J. Cole arriving from New Jersey’s St. Anthony High School, and current freshman Kai Tease coming back from surgery.

Or Daniel can play immediately at another school as a graduate transfer, which has become a popular option among student-athletes.

“I just want to talk it over with my dad,” Daniel said. “I just want to focus on graduation, and focus on getting the team as far as we can in the tournament.”

Howard’s chances of getting far in the MEAC tournament, which begins on Monday? They’re a lot better than what they were a month ago.

Credit coach Kevin Nickelberry with shortening his rotation, sticking pretty much to seven players. Another key move has been to increase the minutes of backup center Tyler Stone, who has been successful in hitting mid-range shots and taking opposing bigs off the dribble and finishing at the rim.

Howard (8-22 overall, 5-10 in the MEAC,) has won three of its last five games while playing its best basketball of the season. In the two recent losses, the Bison played tough against the top two teams in the league, North Carolina Central (22-7, 13-2) and Norfolk State (15-15, 12-4).

“Our goal is to still win a championship,” Daniel said. “Even with all of what we’ve been through, that has never changed.”