by Conor GeregFollow @CTGereg
The Howard University basketball program might not resonate with the average sports fan. That may not last long as fans are about to discover that schools like Howard could soon be a destination for the world’s top basketball talent. If and when college basketball resumes, the Howard Bison deserve your attention now that consensus top-20 recruit Makur Maker made his commitment official in the wee morning hours on Friday, July 3rd via social media. Maker brings his 7’ frame to the MEAC, a league that rarely sees a meteoric talent like Maker, and the young big man is hoping he can set a trend for fellow elite talents to attend a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) like Howard University.
Upon his commitment, Makur tweeted, “I need to make the HBCU movement real”, later noting his intention to persuade other top talents to enroll in HBCUs. “I hope I inspire guys like Mikey Williams to join me on this journey”, Maker wrote, and just hours later Maker’s commitment to the Bison vaulted the program from 352 to 255 in the KenPom pre-season rankings.
In past years there have been occasional times when top talents have listed an HBCU among their list of potential college destinations, but rarely do these come to fruition. In 2009 John Wall listed North Carolina Central among his finalists and just six years later Harry Giles listed local Winston Salem State among the teams he’d consider. Both players eventually signed with Kentucky and Duke, respectively, opting for the more traditional route in attending a name-brand basketball powerhouse.
A Movement with Meaning
“WE CONTROL OUR OWN NARRATIVE”, tweeted top-rated 2023 prep school prospect Mikey Williams, who nearly a month prior to Maker’s commitment, publicly stated his intrigue in attending an HBCU. At just 16 years old, Williams, much like Makur Maker, understands something profoundly vital about their athletic gifts: societal value–and the cumulative impact their presence could have at an HBCU both financially and symbolically. These schools, largely centered in the U.S. South, fail to carry the cache of a basketball bluebloods, but instead these schools have long served a vital role in our nation’s history and it appears that top talents like Maker and Williams understand this.
The vast majority of HBCUs are centered in leagues like the Southland, headquartered in Frisco, Texas or the likes of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) moored in historical Norfolk, or the Southwestern (SWAC) of Birmingham, Alabama. These leagues together have struggled to find success in the modern competitive level. For instance, the MEAC, home to many HBCUs, has perpetually found itself ranked at the bottom, or next to the bottom of the NCAA’s 32 Division I conferences. In fact, just one school from the league finished among the top 250 programs last season, with Norfolk State finishing 246th in the NCAA’s NET rankings. Together the MEAC, SWAC, and Southland, and the universities that comprise these leagues, have long seen themselves as fodder for the well-healed programs at the top of college athletics who reside in larger, more powerful conferences, forever seeing these lower-tier schools as a cheap and easy win necessary to inflating early season records. But young players like Mikey Williams and Makur Maker know that this can change—and change quickly. In some cases, this change is already happening.
Shockwaves and a Ripple Effect
This spring Wyoming transfer Trace Young published a list of six potential destinations for the sophomore forward, all seven schools that Young considered were HBCUs: Alabama State, Howard University , Prairie View A&M University, Mississippi Valley State University, Jackson State University, Norfolk State University, and North Carolina A&T State University. Ultimately, Young would commit to Alabama State, a program that merited a lowly 8-24 win-loss record last season but the intrigue of attending an HBCU ultimately brought Young to Montgomery. Young, a former 3-star recruit who averaged 6.8 PPG in nearly 24 minutes per game at Wyoming, was heavily recruited in high school by Division I powers like DePaul, USC, and Virginia Tech which ultimately makes his commitment to Alabama State not just rare, but potentially transformative for a schools of A.S.U.’s stature.
That being said, Young’s arrival at Alabama State won’t create shockwaves like Maker or Williams, though should talented high school prospects choose the HBCU route, which programs have the most to offer? For this answer we’ll consider several factors, elements like geographic location, a school’s historical athletic success, academics, conference affiliation, and prominent alumni produced. While this list is far from exhaustive, there’s good reason you may hear about these schools again when it comes to college hoops and young athletes looking to pay homage to some of our country’s most influential academic institutions.
Florida A & M – The Rattlers own a 961-957 program record but their combination of location and academics make this Tallahassee program a legitimate consideration for local talent from the Florida, Georgia, and Alabama pipeline. Ranked academically as one of the elite public HBCUs, A&M holds a number of prominent alums but perhaps a contemporary alumnus that might resonate with young athletes is Lonnie Corant Jaman Shuka Rashid Lynn Jr., also known as Common. Most recently A&M plays as part of a Tallahassee backdrop in the most recent year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Nickel Boys, by Colston Whitehead. All these factors combined could make A & M a candidate for the next young star to opt for an HBCU. On the basketball side, the Rattlers will join the SWAC next summer so the program will likely use that energy as a selling point to potential recruits.
Hampton – Through 70 seasons, the Pirates are 1,017-866 and have produced Detroit Piston “Bad Boy” Rick Mahorn whose bruising style led to an 18-year NBA career after Mahorn earned a reputation as a double-double machine for the Pirates playing in Southeast Virginia. Looking ahead, top 2023 prospect Mikey Williams will likely consider the Pirates since his mother is an alumnus, and as we’ve seen in past years, recruits can often sell each other on a school once the first domino lands. A mid-tier program in the Big South, Hampton is best known for having produced a bounty of NFL talent, sending 14 players to the professional ranks. At a deeper historical level, recruits eager to understand the context of race in our country will find that Hampton is home to the oldest museum of African diaspora in the United States while the school’s location also served a crucial role during the Civil War, housing countless fugitive slaves. Young players seeking a university steeped in history while also boasting a fair amount of athletic success should look no further than the Hampton Pirates.
Howard – Since their inaugural season in 1902, the Bison have accrued a record of 1,104-1,331, and have a pair of NCAA tournaments to show for their efforts. The most recent addition of Maker immediately vaults Coach Kenny Blakeney’s squad into the upper reaches of the MEAC this fall. Moving forward, Howard’s fertile recruiting territory in Washington, D.C. should assure them access to local talent. Young athletes considering academics will note the school’s stellar academics, rated as a top-40 business school according to Bloomberg Business week, the only HBCU listed among the group. Named after Civil War hero Oliver Otis Howard, to school has a long list of notable alumni such as writer Toni Morrison, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, political icons like Elijah Cummings and Kamala Harris, and performance idols such as Taraji P. Henson and Chadwick Boseman. Players hailing from the DMV area will find that the Howard Bison have quite a bit to offer.
Norfolk State – An all-time program record of 1,236-682 and a proud lineage of top players, the Spartans have been a consistent power in the MEAC, going 12-4 in conference games last season. The Spartans have a proud list of alumni, stars like Bobby Dandrige, a 1960s sharpshooter who tallied 30+ PPG during his final season at Norfolk State before ultimately winning a pair of titles in the NBA with the Bucks (’71) and the Bullets (’78). The alumni list at Norfolk State is impressive though among recent household names Curb Your Enthusiasm fans have come to appreciate the work of proud alumnus, J.B. Smoove. Back at a basketball level, the Spartans have produced active NBA big man Kyle O’Quinn who led the program to victory over the then #2 seeded Missouri Tigers in the 2012 NCAA Tournament prior to O’Quinn becoming the 49th pick in that summer’s NBA Draft. History, basketball tradition, and recent success: Norfolk State has quite a bit to offer among its HBCU brethren.
North Carolina Central – Since 1928 North Carolina Central has amassed a 1,223-1005 record, and most recently captured the MEAC’s regular season title. The school, formerly known as North Carolina College at Durham, has produced stars like Sam Jones who went on to play with the Boston Celtics, competing in 10 NBA Finals. Located in the heart of basketball-crazed North Carolina, it can be easy to overlook the Eagles who are often overshadowed by Duke’s presence in town and the state flagship in UNC just miles away. That being said, Central has proven to be a formidable program, claiming MEAC Tournament titles in consecutive seasons from 2017-2019.
Tennessee State – The Tigers finished in the top-half of the Ohio Valley last season with an 18-15 record but the program historically has seen as much success as any HBCU on this list. A 1,193-893 all-time record, TSU boasts active NBA forward Robert Covington and beyond Covington, the Tigers have developed stars like Leonard “Truck” Robinson who totaled 2,434 points for the Tigers prior to playing in the NBA for over a decade (1975-1984). Perhaps another recruiting factor Tennessee State has is that few HBCUs play in a league as strong as the Ohio Valley, promising annual matchups with programs like Belmont and Murray State. It also doesn’t hurt that the Tigers call Nashville, one of the country’s fastest growing cities, home with their downtown campus. Oh, and Oprah is an alumnus–hard to top that. Move over Memphis, there’s another set of Tigers in The Volunteer State.
The murder of George Floyd rekindled a new level of introspection within our country, prompting all of us collectively reexamine the way we view race, culture, and equality. Our rekindled awareness has spurred a movement that’s touched every corner of contemporary life, from politics, the arts, education, and of course, sports. Almost immediately after Floyd’s appalling murder the communal psyche of young athletes began to mull how they too can participate in social progress. The HBCU awakening appears to be the epitome of young people of color taking action and doing it in a way that’s sure to hold our attention, and indirectly, reshaping the world of college basketball. This could be a new chapter in the hoops history and it’s an immeasurably refreshing one.