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A season that started with promise and excitement for the Howard University men’s basketball team has ended after just five games.
Howard announced Tuesday it has canceled the remainder of the 2020-21 season “out of an abundance of caution due to the health and safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The Bison last played on Dec. 18. The status of five-star recruit Makur Maker, the highest-rated player to sign with an HBCU in the modern era, remains up in the air.
Head coach Kenneth Blakeney’s team had multiple shutdowns and postponed games in December and January, some due to opponents’ positive COVID-19 tests and others because of positive tests within the Howard program. In January, Maker was one of multiple players and staff members who tested positive as the entire month’s schedule was wiped away.
This past offseason, Blakeney signed an impressive class of incoming transfers and freshmen including Maker, a potential 2021 NBA Draft prospect. But they faced multiple stumbling blocks as the season started. Maker played in the first two games, both losses, before shutting down with a hip injury. He may declare for the NBA Draft if he doesn’t return for his sophomore campaign.
The Bison lost their first four games before beating MEAC rival Hampton on Dec. 18, which turned out to be their final contest of the season. Howard needed 13 games to be eligible for this year’s NCAA Tournament under new rules adopted due to the pandemic, which seemed unlikely to happen. In order to qualify, the team would have needed to win the MEAC Tournament as well.
“It was and remains the right thing for us to do,” Blakeney said in a statement from the school. “Ultimately, our number one 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.” Howard is the second Division I program to end its season after playing games, joining Chicago State.
The conditions surrounding the pandemic may have prevented this team from developing the on-court chemistry it would have during a normal offseason. But keeping the virus under control, more than the four losses to start the season, was its major point of failure. Purdue transfer Nojel Eastern, a two-time all Big Ten Defensive Team selection, opted out of the season due to uncertainty around COVID-19 and declared for the NBA Draft on Jan. 3.
The team had multiple players test positive after they were allowed to travel locally for Christmas—a decision made to support players’ mental health. COVID-19 issues also forced the team to cancel its MLK Day game against Notre Dame, a matchup that could have been the most interesting college hoops game played in the District in years.
Hopes were high for a potential return this year to the NCAA Tournament for Howard, an achievement that has eluded the Bison since 1992. Signing Maker and Eastern were significant boosts for the program and HBCUs as a whole.
The Maker project never got the chance for its full potential. Howard may deserve a pass due to the pandemic, but the way the season played out does not help. Other MEAC teams are going on with their seasons, so Howard’s peers have been able to keep the virus in check.
“There were a lot of people looking at what happened at Howard,” an anonymous MEAC coach told ESPN’s The Undefeated. “Hopefully other kids will keep HBCUs on their radar.”
Still, Black basketball recruits appear to be more interested in HBCUs because of the opportunity to go to school in an environment where they can be themselves, where their culture is celebrated. That won’t change because of the pandemic.