Howard wants expectations tempered with Makur Maker on board originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
The highly-anticipated Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference debut of Makur Maker, Howard University’s five-star recruit, got a boost Thursday as the league announced its 2020-21 preseason all-conference teams. The 6-11 Maker was the lone freshman among a group of seniors named to the preseason All-MEAC First Team, joining Coppin State’s DeJuan Clayton and Koby Thomas, NC Central’s C.J. Keyser and Preseason Player of the Year Kameron Langley of North Carolina A&T.
Maker’s status coming out of Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix as a consensus top-20 player in the country with offers from major Div. I programs immediately thrust Howard into the spotlight when he announced his shocking commitment to the HBCU in July. And with the extra attention has come expectations to perform for the Bison and head coach Kenneth Blakeney, despite a league-worst 4-29 record including 1-15 in conference. MEAC preseason rankings have Howard finishing fifth in the conference and third in the Northern Division.
As Blakeney prepares for just his second season in charge of the program, he wants to temper those expectations. The coaching staff remade almost the entire roster from last season, meaning Maker isn’t the only player they have to get acclimated.
“This is a brand new Bison team. Besides some of the young men that I have, we only have one young man left our roster right now from coach [Kevin] Nickelberry’s roster. So, it is a brand new team,” Blakeney said Thursday on the MEAC basketball media day Zoom call. “It’s something that we needed to address last year. And, you know, when we did that, it was something that was intentional for us to get basketball IQ, character and toughness into our program. And we were able, I think, to do that, but we still have a team of young men that are mostly freshmen that haven’t played a college game yet, and we’re coming off a year where we were 4-29."
In total, the Bison have six freshmen on the roster, six sophomore and just four upperclassmen, one of which, Nojel Eastern, is a transfer from Purdue University whose eligibility for the season is still in the balance. If Eastern is cleared to play, he’d provide a much needed veteran presence on the court for Blakeney’s team.
“He is one of the smartest, if not the smartest basketball player I’ve ever been around. His IQ is through the roof,” Blakeney said of Eastern. “He’s a two-time All-Big Ten defensive team player. He is somebody that can play multiple positions -- he played point guard at Purdue, at 6-7 and 230 pounds. He’s somebody that has a winning pedigree. He played great in the Sweet 16 game at Purdue, then came back in the Elite 8 game and played great. So, for us, that’s so cool to have a young man that has that much experience of winning in the NCAA Tournament.”
One player Howard can count on being in the mix is 2019-20 MEAC Rookie of the Year Wayne Bristol Jr. He’s one of just four returning players and the only returning double-digit scorer after averaging 12.6 pts in 33 games while shooting 40% on 3-pointers.
Dealing with as much youth and turnover in a competitive conference while still trying to establish a culture is not the perfect recipe for success. Add the target on Howard’s back due to the addition of Maker, and Blakeney believes people should be patient with his squad.
“It does make us more of a target, but the thing is, is that I don’t know if our guys understand that they’re targets. Because we don’t have the history and tradition of culture of success,” Blakeney said. “I understand it from the places I’ve played at or the places I’ve been, and our staff understands it. But like I said, we have a young team of guys that have a lot of potential and a lot of talent, but they’ve never done it. So the expectations, I just would like to temper them a little bit, because we have -- even Makur, at this level, he’s never played a college basketball game. Those are kind of my expectations. I know that we’re gonna be the hunted. We go from trying to be the hunter to the hunted all in a year where we’re 4-29 to higher expectations.”