After Jelani Williams hit the game-winning free throws in Howard’s Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship game, he bent over, hugged the game ball and began to cry.
The Bison’s head coach, Kenny Blakeney was also in tears.
In Houston, Texas, the Texas Southern Tigers held a Selection Sunday viewing party in “Kulture” — a restaurant owned by TSU alum Marcus Davis. Upon hearing the team’s seeding, coach Johnny Jones told the media in attendance “This is huge for us.”
That it might only last one game isn't the point. It's March, and for teams like Howard that rarely get the chance to dance, it just means more.
Here is a glance at the HBCU teams getting their shot now and a couple to watch come March and next year:
1. Howard (21-12)
Fresh off of a 65-64 win over Norfolk State in the MEAC Championships, Howard (21-12, 11-3 MEAC) rolled right into the main draw without a stop in the First Four. After not playing in a MEAC championship game since 2002, the Bison clinched the conference title to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992. They are set to play No. 1 seed Kansas on Thursday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in Des Moines, Iowa.
The Bison’s bread and butter is crashing the boards and being aggressive on defense. The team ranks first in offensive rebounding percentage and steal percentage in the MEAC, per KenPom.
Howard is led by 5-11 sophomore guard Elijah Hawkins, who averages just over 13 points per game and ranks top-10 in the conference in scoring. He’s shooting at a nearly 49 percent clip from distance, and has canned 51 3-pointers on the season.
Aside from Hawkins, graduate guard Jelani Williams has made waves recently. The Washington, D.C. native led the Bison with 20 points in the team’s MEAC championship game.
"When Coach Blakeney recruited me at the end of last season, I was coming off a loss in the semifinals in the Ivy League tournament," Williams said in the postgame press conference on Saturday."The opportunity to come back home and be around my family and do something that hasn't been done in almost 40 years. For me, it was about legacy."
2. Texas Southern (14-20)
The Tigers punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament after 61-58 win over Grambling State in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Tournament. Although TSU is playing Fairleigh Dickinson in one of the NCAA Tournament’s First Four games to compete for a 16 seed, the team is already setting high goals.
If TSU were to play the Cinderella and dance all the way to the Final Four, it would be a Houston homecoming.
"That's the goal,” graduate forward John Walker III, who led TSU in scoring in the SWAC Championship, told the media in attendance. “Get all the way to play in front of the fans, playing for the Third Ward. Just thinking of that alone gets you through the year. That'll be the greatest thing to ever happen.”
Texas Southern is led by sophomore Davon Barnes, who paces the Tigers with 13.6 points per game. Barnes’ physicality and size — standing at 6-5 — are unique for a wing. The Memphis native can create his own offense and is lethal from the midrange.
Championed by Barnes, TSU is a team that feeds off of explosive offensive runs, as demonstrated in the SWAC championship game when the Tigers raced out to a 22-5 lead midway through the first half. After losing three straight games to end the regular season, the Tigers are clicking at just the right time.
3. Norfolk State (22-10)
Despite a narrow loss in the MEAC Championships, there is still plenty to love about this Norfolk State team. Norfolk State boasts a powerful offense that ranks first in its conference. Moreover, the Spartans play a physical style of game and are efficient in drawing fouls, as over 20 percent of their offense is generated from the charity stripe.
The Spartans are most dangerous when they’re dominant on the boards, which overwhelmingly tends to be the case. Norfolk State averages nearly 40 boards per game and is first in the MEAC in terms of total rebounds and rebounding margin.
Fifth-year guard Joe Bryant Jr. was the star of the team, pacing the Spartans with nearly 18 points per game — good for third in conference scoring. The two-time MEAC Player of the Year has a reputation for his clutch performances, most recently put on display by his 10 overtime points in the team’s victory over North Carolina Central in the MEAC tournament semifinal game.
Simply put, this is a team that doesn’t quit and coach Robert Jones has made it one of the conference's most consistent teams, with consecutive 20-win seasons and five straight winning seasons.
4. North Carolina Central (18-12)
The Eagles are led by Justin Wright, a junior guard from Greenville, N.C., who averages a team-high 16.1 points per game Wright is one of the most exciting players to come through the NCCU program in recent memory. Last year, he made history as the youngest Eagle to be named first-team All-MEAC.
Since then, he’s made another leap — increasing his scoring and rebounding average — yet was snubbed from making this year’s MEAC first team. Expect that to give him something extra to prove as the team heads into next season.
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