WASHINGTON INFORMER: When Kenneth Blakeney accepted the position of head men’s basketball coach at Howard University in 2019, one of his promises was that he would take full advantage of recruiting local prospects in the talent-rich DMV area. It was a natural decision. Blakeney was a standout at DeMatha High School before going on to Duke University where he was part of two national championships.
It was no easy task, however. In his first season, the team he inherited was beset with injuries and finished 4-32 overall. The task became even more challenging when in the following season, COVID-19 took over and, as a result, the team was only able to play five games in the shortened season.
Despite the challenges, Blakeney stayed the course and last year, with the contributions of two of his local recruits, the program began to reap the benefits. Howard finished 16-13, its first winning season since 2001.
A 6-10 DeMatha grad, Steve Settle III is a testament to Blakeney’s vision. As a member of the Stags team, Settle experienced an unusual growth spurt from his sophomore to junior seasons, from 5-8 to 6-8. To some, it appeared to be a gamble for Howard, Although Settle was a member of the DeMatha team, he saw very limited playing time in that transitional stage In addition to him not having played much, Settle’s weight was only 150 pounds.
That did not deter Blakeney. He deemed Settle not ready for the tough and tumble of college basketball, so he decided to red-shirt him. That move has paid off handsomely. The native of Glenarden, Md. is now in his third season-second full- and is one of the top all-around players in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC).
A preseason second team all-MEAC selection, he is currently second on the team in scoring (11.8 ppg).and leads the team in rebounding and blocked shots.
“Howard showed interest in me from the previous coaching staff,” recalls Settle, a sports management major. “Coach KB (Blakeney) showed interest in me. He explained everything to me about the situation and what the plan was. It started slowly for me as I learned the game from a playing aspect. Then when the season started last year, I felt the confidence that I could play this game and have an impact. It has worked out well.”
Settle’s coming-out-party came last season when the Bison lost a close game to Notre Dame in the MLK Classic in which he scored a career-high 26 points.
Hawkins’ story is also equally intriguing. The sophomore guard from Washington, D.C. also prepped at DeMatha and was the floor general of a team that included Michigan standout center Hunter Dickinson and UConn guard Jordan Hawkins. Yet, a combination of the COVID-19 outbreak and Hawkins’ size (5-11) scared away some of the schools looking for a winning point guard.
Blakeney’s commitment again paid off as Hawkins went on to earn MEAC Rookie of the Year and is a pre-season all-conference first team selection. He currently leads the team in scoring, in assists and is tied for the lead in steals.
“Playing alongside E (Elijah) makes things easy for us,” Settle told the Informer. “He knows how to play the game and is a very confident individual.
Not satisfied and looking to further make good on his vow, Blakeney brought in two other local pieces in Jelani Williams, a local product of Sidwell Friends and standout at Penn before transferring to Howard as a graduate. The other player is Marcus Dockery, who played at Theodore Roosevelt High School and Brewster Academy before playing at the University of Maryland.
They have both made a difference in the Bison’s 7-9 start.
Williams, a 6-5 guard is a versatile player, who fills the stat sheets. He is currently second on the team with 34 assists, tied for second in steals with 22 while contributing 8 points and 4 rebounds per game.
A 6-2 sophomore guard, Dockery is one of the Bison’s most productive reserves off the bench. He recently came off the bench and provided 10 key points in eight minutes that helped the Bison propel to its third straight at that time. He is currently tied for third on the squad with 14 made three-pointers while averaging sevent points and shooting a team-best 93% from the free throw line.
“This area is well known for high level basketball. I have watched or played against Macus, E and Jelani and they fit the bill,” Settle said. “The players from the DMV know how to play the game. They have that swag and they have a toughness. It was only natural that Howard takes advantage.”
Adding to the local flavor are the members of the coaching staff, Tyler Thornton and Rod Balanis. Thornton had an outstanding career prep at Gonzaga College High School, here in the District before going to Duke. Balanis graduated from DeMatha in 1988 after an outstanding career playing for legendary coach Morgan Wootten.
In the recent game between Howard and Harvard, the Bison became the only school from an HBCU to defeat the Crimson. But what was as important as the victory was the reunion of the coaching staff. Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker, a graduate of W.T. Woodson High School and former All-Met, played at Duke.
Howard has won three of its last four games and starts their quest of a MEAC title and ultimately a tournament title and trip to the NCAA Tournament Jan. 7 when it hosts Delaware State in the conference opener inside Burr at 4 p.m.
Bison fans will get a chance to see this team with local players in five of the first six games, which will be in the Burr. Included in that schedule will be a highly-anticipated event for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Classic, this year featuring Morehouse on Monday, Jan. 16 at 6 p.m.
Photo: Howard University junior Steve Settle III (Courtesy of Rodney Pierce)