Why HBCUs could again become serious options for elite basketball prospects

Mikey Williams, ranked No. 3 by ESPN in the 2023 recruiting class, has explicitly expressed interest in attending an HBCU program. Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

"Going to an HBCU wouldn't be too bad..."

Those were the words of high school basketball phenom Mikey Williams in a June 2 tweet, just days after a weekend filled with protests and social unrest across the country. Williams' statement about potentially playing for a historically Black college or university garnered extensive social traction and national media attention, with the quote gaining further momentum after Carmelo Anthony was asked about it on an Instagram Live session.

"All it takes is one person to change history," Anthony said. "I think it's a better chance of this new generation, this next generation, to go to a HBCU and be accepted and bring something different to a HBCU, as opposed to what was happening in 2002. Do I think that a kid like Mikey Williams should consider a HBCU? I think he should, based off of the power that he has within himself. If he [does] that, it changes college sports because you have a young black kid at the top of his game who decided to go to a black university. That's totally different."

Since then, Division I HBCUs have become more assertive in their pursuit of five-star and high-major prospects. Five-star rising senior Trevor Keels landed three HBCU offers; five-star rising junior Brandon Huntley-Hatfield picked up at least four HBCU offers; top-tier junior college prospect El Ellis included North Carolina Central on his final list before choosing Louisville; and several other five-star prospects have begun to include HBCUs among their scholarship offers.

Etop Udo-Ema, Williams' coach with the Compton Magic, said more than 20 HBCUs reached out to him after Williams' tweet and another of his players told him he wanted to look at HBCUs. Coaches in the MEAC and SWAC said they've noticed an uptick in parents and coaches of high-major prospects reaching out to them to express interest.

"I think it would change the culture forever," Huntley-Hatfield said. "It would change the game of basketball altogether, if one of us chose a different pathway to make our dream come true and help our community. It just opens up a whole new bridge of opportunity. I feel like it would be a domino effect."

The conversation between HBCUs and high-major players is different now than it has been over the past couple of years. It's different than it was even a few weeks ago. The past month has seen a wave of protests and outrage over racial injustice, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died on May 25 while in the custody of Minneapolis police.

"When we look back 40 years from now, we'll realize this was a historical and monumental time," North Carolina Central coach LeVelle Moton said. "This will be in the history books -- this is the day the world changed. The movement feels different. ... They're tired of the status quo and the 'in vogue' and what's happening. They want to reclaim their power. We need to care about us. It shouldn't be a crime that I want to go support my own.

"Any change in this country, it starts with young people. This isn't dying down."

Elite players attending HBCUs was once a regular event. In the 1960s, Earl Monroe attended Winston-Salem State and Willis Reed came out of Grambling. The decade prior, Dick Barnett (Tennessee State) and Sam Jones (North Carolina Central) were HBCU stars.

Unfortunately for HBCUs, that was decades ago.

Moton points to two moments that changed the recruiting landscape for college sports. One was USC running back Sam Cunningham rushing for 135 yards and two touchdowns in a dominant win over Alabama in 1970, and the other was Texas Western and its all-Black starting five beating Kentucky and its all-white starting five in the 1966 men's basketball national championship game.

Alabama football coach Bear Bryant and Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp began integrating their programs around this era, while most big-time college basketball programs integrated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Once power-conference programs -- particularly in the South -- started recruiting the best players regardless of race, the paradigm shifted. Instead of having a free run at a Willis Reed or a Sam Jones, HBCUs were now competing against bigger programs with significantly more resources and exposure.

"That changed the face of college recruiting as we know it," Moton said. "The best talent was no longer going to HBCUs."

Today's NBA features just a few players from HBCUs, with Robert Covington and Kyle O'Quinn the headliners. O'Quinn was the only HBCU product selected in any of the past 15 NBA drafts. The last NBA All-Star to come from an HBCU was Ben Wallace, who played at Virginia Union from 1994 to 1996.

"I don't waste my time pursuing these kids and only do it so they get their numbers up with social media and get in the conversation on a hot-button issue. I want someone that wants to be at Howard and understands what Howard is."
Howard coach Kenny Blakeney

But even before Williams' tweet, there were signs of change when it came to HBCUs and recruiting. Last fall, five-star seniors Josh Christopher and Makur Maker each took official visits to Howard. Christopher ultimately committed to Arizona State, while Maker has yet to make a decision. Maker's guardian, Ed Smith, said Howard is one of four schools still heavily involved with Maker, along with UCLA, Kentucky and Memphis. Sources told ESPN that UCLA and Howard are the two favorites right now.

But even if Maker doesn't commit to Howard, getting two elite prospects to use one of their five official visits on an HBCU is a step in the right direction.

"We just kind of thought a visit to an HBCU is more than an unofficial [visit]," Christopher's father, LaRon, said. "Sometimes you just have to show up and that says enough. We were considering it, if we could've got some guys to go in with us. ... We did that move to respect our culture and to honor the forefathers of education and institutions and to connect directly with his heritage. I think we're seeing the results of it."

Professional athletes across all major sports have joined in the protests, while NBA players have considered the ramifications of restarting the season and how it would impact the Black Lives Matter movement. NFL stars produced a Black Lives Matter video and caused the league to express an openness to seeing Colin Kaepernick rejoin the league after essentially blackballing the quarterback following his national anthem protests in 2016.

"With LeBron and Kaepernick, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, they've seen athletes take stands, which is a lot different from our generation," Howard coach Kenny Blakeney said. "Our generation didn't want to be politically active; they didn't want to be social activists. They didn't want to ruffle feathers. These young men are seeing this in real time, throughout their life."

"Because of what's going on in the world right now, attention goes directly to the African American community and how we can make it better," Tennessee State coach Brian "Penny" Collins added. "Playing for those universities, they make those universities better. There's a sentiment to do whatever they can to help their community. This is just one of the things on the list."

While HBCUs have extended scholarship offers to highly touted players in the past, current recruits are starting to include HBCUs along with traditional powers when they announce their school lists. Feedback from coaches and parents has been different, and high school students are starting to do their own research into their culture.

"Once I saw Mikey post about going to an HBCU, I started looking more into it," Huntley-Hatfield said. "With everything going on around the world, it left us with time to think. Our Black communities are going through a lot right now."

As the opportunity grows for HBCUs to become involved with five-star and high-major recruits, the sales pitch from the school to the player hasn't changed too much. Recruits said it still focuses on two major points: community and legacy.

"A lot of people are comfortable with familiarity. Kids could say, 'I would feel welcome that I'm not just an athlete -- I'm part of a community,'" said Smith, Maker's guardian. "On the visit at Howard, that was the main difference. Just for me on the outside looking in, he's part of the fabric. You're not just the athlete or the Black athlete."

In terms of legacy, HBCU coaches are trying to sell life after basketball and life outside of basketball. Moton knows firsthand how much attending an HBCU can help later in life. He chose to play at NC Central over ACC schools, and he returned years later to become the head coach of the Eagles.

"If I want to go to a Power 5 school, it's basketball. An HBCU, it's more about your legacy," Huntley-Hatfield said. "What you want to create, have a platform, create opportunities for the next generation. Legacy is a big enough word to get in the conversation."

There are clear differences between going to a high-major school and going to an HBCU, and former Texas Southern players Jalyn Patterson and Jeremy Combs know that better than most. Patterson played three seasons at LSU before transferring to Texas Southern as a graduate student, and Combs started at North Texas before joining LSU and then finishing his career with the Tigers, where he earned SWAC Player of the Year honors.

High-major schools have a clear advantage when it comes to money being put into the program -- and the bells and whistles that come along with that money. Patterson said the biggest adjustment was the bus trips, as compared to the plane rides in the SEC.

"The facilities, the programs, it's completely different," Combs said. "LSU had a main gym, a practice gym, another gym just for whatever. It's a business."

The competition within the league is obviously different, but most schools in the MEAC and SWAC are forced to load up their nonconference schedules with high-major opponents to keep programs and athletic departments sustainable. HBCU programs are annually near the top of the strength of schedule rankings in the nonconference.

When Patterson and Combs were at Texas Southern, they faced Baylor, Gonzaga, Iowa State and San Diego State to start the season, and they also played Oregon, Arizona State, Georgia and Texas A&M before January even hit. The Tigers didn't play a Division I team on their home court until Jan. 19.

"I didn't feel like I missed out on anything," Combs said. "You're gonna have an opportunity to play."

"You could still go out there and average 20 and make it out of the SWAC. I really believe that," Patterson added. "They're going to come find you."

Players transferring from high-major programs to HBCUs provide some optimism that high school players will eventually follow. Texas Southern went to the NCAA tournament in four out of five years from 2014 to 2018 under Mike Davis, building primarily off transfers. That trend continued when Johnny Jones took over, with Patterson and Combs following him from LSU. NC Central has landed plenty of high-major transfers in the MEAC, helping the Eagles earn three straight NCAA tournament appearances.

The proliferation of transfers across college basketball provides another reason for HBCU coaches to get involved with high-level players during their high school careers, Jones said. When a former top-100 prospect decides to enter the transfer portal, an HBCU coach doesn't have to start the relationship from scratch.

But due to the disparity in competition, resources and exposure, HBCU coaches are aware they're engaging in uphill battles to land some of these players out of high school. Like most mid- and low-major schools in general, eyebrows are raised when a top-50 prospect includes a non-power conference team on his list.

When asked to respond to those who might express skepticism over a five-star prospect committing to an HBCU, Blakeney responded, "I'd say they're 100 percent accurate."

"I'm very cautious with pursuing this," he continued, recalling a recent conversation he had with a ranked prospect. "I said, 'Hey, look, I'm going to be honest with you. We don't have locker rooms like a blue blood university, we don't have practice courts, our offices aren't what you would see at a blue blood. That said, do you still have interest?' I wanted to be more negative than positive with that conversation, so I don't waste my time pursuing these kids and only do it so they get their numbers up with social media and get in the conversation on a hot-button issue. I want someone that wants to be at Howard and understands what Howard is."

There's also the question: What happens if and when a five-star player does pick an HBCU? What if it doesn't work immediately?

"Wherever a five-star lands, we can't mess it up," Blakeney said. "If we mess it up, we may not have another opportunity to be able to do it."

It's too early to definitively say one of the five-star or high-major prospects talking to HBCUs this month will ultimately decide to commit to one. Williams, whose mother went to Hampton, is No. 3 in the ESPN recruiting rankings for 2023 and might not ever play college basketball. Huntley-Hatfield, the cousin of former Kentucky forward Alex Poythress, is looking at the Wildcats, Tennessee, Memphis and others. Ellis had the likes of Oregon, Louisville, UConn and Texas Tech alongside NC Central on his final eight.

That said, HBCU coaches as a whole sense a potential opening right now, and they're only going to be more aggressive in pursuing five-star prospects.

And if it does happen? It's a game-changer.

"It would be groundbreaking, to say the least," said Moton. "It's the Jackie Robinson effect, the snowball effect, where everybody will follow. They are the product, they are who we watch TV to see, not LeVelle Moton or any other coach. We turn on the TV to see the athletes run up and down the field or up and down the court. They're realizing they have the power to generate interest. Wherever they go, the crowd follows. Once the crowd follows, TV and revenue follows."

The social justice movements around the country and the growing mutual interest on both sides of these recruitments would seem to make a marriage between top recruits and HBCUs more likely than at any point in the past couple of decades. A ripple effect could follow.

"This trailblazing path that's trying to get re-sparked, it's already been blazed before," Collins said. "It's just time for somebody to blaze it again."