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Howard cancels men’s basketball season because of COVID-19

Makur Maker, the prized five-star recruit, only played in two games because of injury and canceled games

Makur Maker’s decision six months ago to play basketball at Howard University was billed as a game-changer. Maker was the first ESPN 100 player to commit to a historically Black college and university (HBCU), resulting in interest from documentary crews eager to chronicle what was expected to be a historic season. Congratulations for the move — which led to other high-profile recruits to express interest in HBCUs — were in abundance.

But it’s a historic season that never gained traction, with Howard announcing Tuesday that it’s suspending the rest of the season after COVID-19-related issues kept the program shut down since the middle of December. Howard has played just five games this season, with its only win against Hampton on Dec. 18, the last game the team played. The Bison are the only team in Division I that has failed to play a conference game.

“We had several team members test positive in January, and were forced to place the program on hold, cancel several games and finally cancel our season. It was and remains the right thing for us to do,” said Howard men’s basketball head coach Kenneth Blakeney in a press release. “Ultimately, our No. 1 priority is to ensure the health and safety of our student-athletes, both mentally and physically. Canceling the season is in the best interest of the team at this time.”

Eleven games were either postponed or canceled this season, including a highly anticipated nationally televised game against Notre Dame that was to be played on Howard’s home floor. Howard’s two games last weekend against Morgan State were postponed. Howard’s sports information director said Monday that the school was moving forward with this weekend’s games at Delaware State. However, a source told The Undefeated that the Hornets had already scheduled another opponent this weekend due to the Bison being unable to play.

Howard’s first shutdown for COVID-19-related issues was announced by the school on Jan. 8, one day before its scheduled home game against Delaware State. At the time of the announcement, the program had already been shut down for nearly a week. A source told The Undefeated that the positive case was confirmed after the team returned from Christmas break.

The men’s basketball team could never get a handle on COVID-19 issues, even as the women’s team has been able to play its schedule without pause.

On Jan. 11, Maker announced on Instagram Live that he was one of the players with COVID-19.

The school announced the cancellation of its high-profile game against Notre Dame on Jan. 16. “We are all incredibly disappointed by this cancellation,” Howard athletic director Kery Davis said in a statement. “This was a tremendous opportunity to bring national exposure to our basketball team and the university.”

On Jan. 27, the school announced the game against North Carolina Central, scheduled to be televised on ESPN2, was canceled “due to concerns relating to COVID-19 in the Howard men’s basketball program.”

A source told The Undefeated that players on the team were notified on Feb. 5 that the season wouldn’t go forward.

Howard was reaching a point where the program was in jeopardy of even qualifying for the NCAA tournament: The NCAA requires teams to play 13 games against Division I opponents. Howard has four games against Division I opponents with — if the cancellation of the two games that were to be played Saturday and Sunday at Delaware State are added — eight regular-season games remaining. A disruption in those remaining eight games would have put that 13-game minimum in jeopardy.

“Fortunately, this gives our student-athletes the opportunity to finish their academic year strong while demonstrating their resiliency upon their return. We are Bison strong; we will get through this together,” said Blakeney.

The loss of a season is a huge disappointment for Howard, which was hoping Maker, a five-star recruit, would turn around the fortunes of a team that won just four games last season. Howard hasn’t had a winning season since 2001-02, yet Maker gave the team hope that it could make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1992.

Those expectations were dimmed early as Howard dropped its first three games in the Paradise Jam to two mid-major programs (Belmont and George Mason) and a Division II school (Queens College). Maker only played in the first two games, scoring 11 points and grabbing 8 rebounds in his college debut against Belmont, and scoring 12 points with 4 rebounds in the loss to Queens College. After Maker played just 19 minutes against Queens College, it was announced he was being shut down because of a hip injury.

Maker, in those two games, never had the help he expected. Wayne Bristol, last year’s Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Freshman of the Year, was sidelined at the start of the season with a hip injury and Nojel Eastern, who announced in August that he was transferring to Howard from Purdue, was never cleared to play.

The question remains about the fallout from Howard’s disappointing season.

Will Maker stay at Howard, opt out and enter the NBA draft or transfer to one of the traditional basketball powers that recruited him out of high school?

And will future top-rated players out of high school consider an HBCU after the Howard-Maker project failed to get off the ground?

“There were a lot of people looking at what happened at Howard,” said a MEAC coach, who didn’t want to be identified. “Hopefully other kids will keep HBCUs on their radar.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.