All eyes are on Howard as it begins season with star recruit Makur Maker
Coach Kenny Blakeney tries to temper expectations as team begins rebuilding process
As Howard men’s basketball coach Kenny Blakeney enters the most important season of his coaching career with this week’s launch of the Makur Maker era, his good friend Harvard coach Tommy Amaker told a story that puts what’s on the horizon in perspective.
Amakar and Blakeney both attended Duke and his story concerned two of the school’s teams: the 1989-90 team, which was annihilated by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in the national championship game 103-73 in what still stands as the biggest final game rout. And the 1990-91 team, which beat UNLV in the national semifinals on the way to winning the first of five NCAA titles.
The words of wisdom that Amaker shared: “You’re going to have to be almost gutted before you can take that next step.”
Howard, a year ago, took no steps to being respectable. The Bison won four games and were one of the worst teams in college basketball. Howard, this week, begins its season with Maker, a five-star recruit who many assume will lead the Bison to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1992.
“People on the outside want us to skip the step and, if we do, I’m fine with that,” Blakeney said. “But there is a process. Even with Maker, we’re not likely to avoid skipping steps.”
Blakeney doesn’t expect Howard to be habitual step-skippers as the team opens its season against Belmont on Thanksgiving Day in Washington on the opening day of the 2020 DC Paradise Jam tournament. Even with Maker, the No. 16 player in the ESPN 100 for the Class of 2020, becoming the first five-star athlete to choose a historically Black university, Blakeney isn’t expecting a Howard team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2001-02 to immediately dominate.
But even as he asks fans to temper their expectations, the second-year coach said the addition of Maker has raised the level of excitement. Maker, listed by Howard as a guard/forward, provides the program with a player who will likely be one of college basketball’s most versatile players on day one.
“He’s really talented, and he’s going to be really good,” Blakeney said. “But we have to remember that he’s just a freshman, and we have to remember that the college game is different from the high school game.”
For Maker, there’s going to have to be a balance between the exceptional talent he possesses and his lack of experience on the college level. “There’s going to be a great deal of growth this season,” Blakeney said. “It’s going to be important to be consistent and efficient.”
While there could be an enormous amount of pressure on Maker to carry the team, Blakeney said that his Howard teammates have brought enough toughness in early practices to keep him grounded.
“They’ve done a great job of competing and going after him,” Blakeney said. “And I think in a unique way he’s raised their level and woken up some guys that have a lot of potential and, with that potential, they now have some confidence.
“He’s our most dominant player,” Blakeney added, “but day in and day out he may not be our best player.”
Two players who could be the best player on the floor for Howard on any given day, guards Nojel Eastern and Wayne Bristol Jr., won’t be in uniform for the Paradise Jam. Eastern, a senior who came to Howard from Purdue, has yet to be granted a transfer waiver. Bristol, the sophomore guard who was the MEAC Rookie of the Year, opted out of the Paradise Jam bubble as he recovers from an injury.
Regardless of the talent level on an extremely young team (a combined 12 freshmen and sophomores are on the current roster), the team enters the season with a target. And Maker — and the attention that he gets — is the big reason.
“You usually go from being the hunter to the hunted, but we never had the chance to be the hunter,” Blakeney said. “Now with the success that we’ve had with our recruiting class and other things that have kept Howard front and center in the news like Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Howard is looked at as an elite school.”
Now, Howard should expect opponents to come into games locked and loaded.
“People will use all of that as ammunition and bulletin board material to really be motivated to come at us,” Blakeney warned his players. “That’s going to be part of who we are this year.”
Since Maker announced his decision in July to attend Howard “to help change the culture,” others have stepped up. In women’s basketball, Se’Quoia Allmond, ranked No. 70 in the ESPNW 100, committed to Jackson State earlier this month. In men’s basketball, Duncan Powell, the No. 85 recruit in the ESPN 100, chose North Carolina A&T after receiving offers from a long list of schools, including Arkansas, Ole Miss and TCU.
Who’s next? That might depend on Maker’s success at Howard.
“There’s probably a number of high school student-athletes that are now looking at Howard because Makur decided to come,” Blakeney said. “What he did by stepping up and wanting to be almost like the Jackie Robinson of five-star recruits looking or attending HBCUs like Howard, it’s going to change the landscape. But it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Dennis Thomas, commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), sees no reason Maker won’t succeed.
“History is replete with college student-athletes that go on to the professional ranks having attended HBCUs,” Thomas said. “Hopefully, this is the beginning of the turning of the tide where the top players see value in playing at Howard and other MEAC institutions.”
Howard’s heightened expectations for the basketball program, unfortunately, coincide with a global pandemic. No fans are allowed to be present to witness his highly anticipated debut. The games will be televised on ESPN3.
“It’s bittersweet,” Blakeney said. “But in a way, I think there will be more anticipation. Most, if not all of our games will be on many of the ESPN channels this season. And I think, with the pandemic, that’s going to generate more interest from everywhere.”
The proof is in the numbers. Blakeney says that Maker has generated more than a billion social media impressions since he announced his decision on July 3 to attend Howard.
“Everyone is looking at us,” Blakeney said. “For us to have another chance with an athlete like Makur, we have to get this right.”