March Madness

Howard ended men’s NCAA Tournament drought with homegrown coach Kenny Blakeney leading way

Howard ended men's NCAA Tournament drought with homegrown coach Kenny Blakeney leading way

Kenny Blakeney was teary-eyed when he hugged his players and cut down the net last weekend in Norfolk, Virginia. The tears, though, were about so much more than just basketball.

“What they have done off the court has been as special as the accomplishments on,” Blakeney told USA TODAY Sports in a text message several hours after Howard qualified for its first men’s NCAA Tournament since 1992 and third overall.

Blakeney got his head-coaching job at the prestigious HBCU in Washington, D.C., in 2019. He impressed the administration with his comprehensive understanding of what Howard means in the Black community and his vision for what its team can be.

Howard has produced the first Black vice president (Kamala Harris) and the first Black Supreme Court justice (Thurgood Marshall). He is using the school’s rich academic heritage – late author Toni Morrison and Congressman Elijah Cummings also studied  there – as a key recruiting tool.


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“At every institution at every level, most basketball players walk in with the idea they want to go to the NBA someday,” Howard athletics director Kery Davis told USA TODAY Sports for a 2022 profile about Blakeney. “But do we develop leaders who are going to leave their mark? … He had a holistic plan for every part of the basketball program. When I saw that, I knew that he was a great fit for us.”

The No. 16-seeded Bison face perhaps their biggest in-game challenge of  Blakeney’s four years at Howard on Thursday when they play Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the West, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Howard coach Kenny Blakeney celebrates after defeating Norfolk State to win the 2023 MEAC men’s basketball tournament at Norfolk Scope Arena on March 11, 2023 in Norfolk, Virginia.

Who is Kenny Blakeney?

Blakeney, 51, earned the MEAC coach of the year honors this season and led the Bison to the conference’s tournament championship. He grew up in Washington a couple of miles from Howard’s campus. It was a time when the city had the reputation as the murder and crack capital of the nation.

He idolized area product Len Bias, who starred at Maryland and shockingly died of cocaine intoxication two days after the Boston Celtics drafted him No. 2 overall in 1986.

“Scared the (expletive) out of me,” Blakeney said.

He could look up to Georgetown coach John Thompson, a Washington native whom he might see at his neighborhood McDonald’s, or playground hero and future Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley, who played in local gyms. He wore Dantley’s jersey number 45 as a ninth grader.

Blakeney’s mother enrolled him in Catholic grade school and he wound up at prestigious DeMatha High in Maryland suburbs as a football player. But he found his way to the basketball court under legendary prep coach Morgan Wootten.

Early in his school years, Blakeney had been diagnosed with a learning disability. He was told he would never get a grade of above a C. The nurturing influence of Wootten helped him balance school and sports.

Wootten was one of a number of notable role models or mentors for whom he played or coached. They also include Lefty Driesell at James Madison, Tommy Amaker at Harvard and Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.

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What is Kenny Blakeney’s coaching philosophy?

Blakeney, a guard for Krzyzewski’s powerhouse Duke teams of the early to mid-1990s, likes to use the court as a classroom.

At the start of this season, he challenged his players to come up with a social justice project. They chose Black maternal health and partnered with an on-the-ground organization in Washington that provides care and support for expectant mothers. Blakeney and the team committed to an all-day project for Mamatoto Village on Jan. 15.

Blakeney has five players who average between 9.2 and 13 points per game: sophomore guard Elijah Hawkins (13.0 ppg); redshirt junior forward Steve Settle (11.0); freshman forward Shy Odom (10.8); sophomore guard Marcus Dockery (9.6); and guard Jelani Williams (9.2), a graduate transfer from the University of Pennsylvania.

His teams like to attack offensively and defensively and rely on contributions throughout the roster, as well as trust in one another. He gave Settle an offer after watching his 15-second clip posted on Twitter.

“He believed in me more at that time than I probably believed in myself and he saw potential that I didn’t see,” Settle said.

After going 4-29 in his first season and 1-4 in a COVID-shortened second, Blakeney’s team went 16-13 in 2021-2022. It won 14 of 16 down the stretch this season, starting at Norfolk State on Jan. 14 (the day before the service project) and ending with a dramatic 65-64 win over the Spartans in the MEAC championship.

What is Howard’s basketball history?

Howard has never won an NCAA Tournament game. Kansas has won four national championships.

“I think Howard could become a Gonzaga,” Blakeney says. “I think it can become a Loyola Chicago, a team like Butler that came out of the Horizon League that went to back-to-back Final Fours. A team like San Diego State … a team like Saint Mary’s that’s a top 20 program, a top 25 program.”

Blakeney had a five-star recruit, Makur Maker, during the COVID-shortened season. His team has played on national television on MLK Day in 2022 against Notre Dame, nearly beating one of his mentors, Mike Brey, a former coach at DeMatha and Duke.

Playing Kansas, a 20.5-point favorite, is another opportunity to show Howard’s prominent alumni base its mission to propel a once-academically focused university to a national level athletically.

“I’m actually old enough to remember the Georgetown emergence,” said Davis, the athletics director. “I’m from New York City. I was a pretty good basketball player. And one of my guys who I played with back then was a guy named Fred Brown, who played on the Georgetown championship (in 1984). I remember when he told me he was going to Georgetown. And I had no idea what Georgetown was. After John came in and turned that program around, everybody knew Hoya basketball.

“I think when we do start winning, it will be traditional-type winning like really good programs do.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kenny Blakeney, Howard made NCAA Tournament history, now face Kansas


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