From the outside-looking-in, Howard University playing Kansas on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament is a matchup of a basketball blue blood vs. a program that has struggled to find sustained success for decades.
Kansas is a state flagship school with a storied basketball history that includes having the game’s inventor — James Naismith — coach its program. Howard University is a private, historically black college known far more for its academics than its athletics. KU has more national titles (four) than Howard has NCAA Tournament appearances (three, including Thursday’s game).
The two programs will find themselves matched up on Thursday as Howard will look to become just the no. 16 seed to pull off an upset of no. 1.
One thing Howard has going for it is that it has already seen a “Blue Blood” up close, and personal. Howard University opened up the season at Kentucky. The score was a lopsided affair in favor of Kentucky, but to a man, both players and head coach Kenneth Blakeney believe they are capable.
“I think the biggest thing I learned from that game and the biggest thing our team learned from that game was the intensity that these guys play with on this level and just the physicality,” said Steve Settle III, who holds just 180 pounds on his 6’10 frame. “That was a great learning experience for me and that’s something that I have to carry with me into tomorrow.”
Jelani Williams, a grad student who was on the Penn team that played Kansas back in 2018, agreed with that assessment.
“I think we recognize the level that they play at the athleticism, the physicality and everything that you have to do to be successful and to stay in those games,” Williams said. “I think we’re a way different team than we were at the beginning of the season playing against Kentucky. We learned a lot of lessons about how we have to play to be successful in our brand of basketball. So I’m excited to see how far we’ve come from that game for sure.”
Blakeney knows plenty about blue bloods. The D.C. native spent his college days at Duke, part of a program that won back-to-back national titles on Mike Kresh
“I think we’re such a different team from our first game till now. We’ve gone through a number of different starting lineups until we found the rhythm and then — when we’re going into our first game against Kentucky — We were going through a stretch of so many games at the beginning of our season. But I think having a chance to play a blueblood will give us a little bit of familiarity of what that feels like.”
If Howard is to make a run at the elusive 16-1 upset, it stands to reason that sophomore point guard Elijah Hawkins will have a big say in that. The 5’11 DC native leads the team in scoring at 13 points per game and also averages 5.9 assists per game — good for 11th in the country. He’ll be matched up against senior Dajuan Harris, who averages 6.2 per game.
His teammates certainly believe in him.
“Dejuan is a great point guard, but we also have a great point guard — E,” Settle said. “I like that matchup a lot and it’s going to be two good guards going at it.”
Grad student Jelani Williams agrees.
“They have a team full of great players. Dejuan Harris is kind of the guy that’s the straw that stirs the drink for them,” Williams said. “So we’re definitely going to have to step up and accept that challenge. But I wouldn’t want to go to war with anybody but Elijah Hawkins. I think he’s a great point guard. He defends the ball, he gets us going, gets us opportunities. So I like him against any guard in the country.”
Howard will square off against Kansas at 2 PM on Thursday.