By Mark F. Gray, AFRO Staff Writer, [email protected]
As the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference basketball season prepares for next week’s tournament in Norfolk, VA, it could be time for one of the most enigmatic teams in Division I this season to rise and perhaps win a championship.
Howard is building momentum as the regular season closes with seven consecutive road wins. Since they won’t play at Burr Gymnasium anymore this year, they will be as dangerous as any team in the conference. After last weekend’s victory at Savannah State, the Bison are playing with more confidence away from Northwest D.C.
When healthy, Howard is one of the most talented teams in the conference and they are built to be a factor in March. They’ve got talent with depth on the perimeter and the interior. Offensively, the guard tandem of R.J. Cole and Charles Williams has led them to three straight wins and seven consecutive on the road.
The Cole Williams connection has finally rounded into form. This tandem, which was the MEAC’s preseason all-conference first team backcourt, is playing its basketball of the season. Heading into the season finale at Norfolk State, they are combing to averaging 39 points per game and Cole was named BoxtoRow’s national player of the week after two recent stellar performances.
Cole, a four-time MEAC Player of the Week, leads the conference in scoring at 21.2 points per game. He averaged 21 points, 5.5 boards, 4.5 assists and 4.5 steals in Howard’s two victories in Baltimore and Savannah, GA. He scored 19 points, six steals (career-high), with five rebounds and four assists at Morgan State. He also added a career-high, six assists. That was followed by a 25-point effort at Savannah State.
Williams, who averages 18 points per game, would probably be a player of the year candidate in his own right were he not in the same backcourt as Cole. However, he is the more athletic of the two and has been playing with challenge of having to guard the opposition’s top guard to start games.
Howard’s discipline will be challenged in their season finale when they meet Norfolk State in the return engagement in Tidewater. This will be the first time they meet since the embarrassing spectacle that followed their first meeting in D.C. last month.
Following Norfolk’s 80-78 victory a melee ensued that began in the stands then made its way onto the floor. There were multiple suspensions of players from both teams and when the dust settled on the massive altercation, the Bison faced the task of heading to the road for a key Florida road trip where they swept Florida A&M and Bethune Cookman without three key players and most notably their head coach Kevin Nickelberry.
While the players were suspended, after an investigation by the conference, Nickelberry’s sanction were imposed by Howard. Since then the intense Bison coach has mellowed and his team has played more relaxed, especially on the road. Howard has won seven of their last 10 games, but the three losses came at Burr gymnasium on alumni night and senior night in front of big crowds.
Nonetheless, the Bison have assured themselves of finishing with a conference mark above .500. A victory at Norfolk State to cap the regular season could net a top four seed in the MEAC Tournament and would assure them of an above the break even mark for the regular season.
“Entering the season, we wanted to win at least 15 games,” said Nickelberry. “The program has only had four 15-win seasons since 1990 and we’ve had two of those [seasons] since I’ve been here.”