There will be a lot at stake when the Bison of Howard University takes on the Hornets of Delaware State on Saturday at Memorial Hall in Dover, DE.
Howard (9-19, 6-9 in the MEAC) which has won two in a row and five of its last six, needs a victory to improve its seeding position in the upcoming Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, March 5-10 at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, NC.
The Bison have been one of the surprise teams in the latter part of the season. After a rugged non-conference schedule that featured road games against four nationally ranked teams in the month of December, a young and fatigued Howard team struggled.
Head Coach Kevin Nickelberry used a much-needed break in the schedule in January to take a different approach, throwing caution to the wind, starting five freshmen and using key veterans like red-shirt junior guard Calvin Thompson, senior guard Glenn Andrews, junior Mike Phillips, sophomore center Alphonso Leary and sophomore guard Tre Lee to bring experience off the bench.
“We like to start the young guys because they give us a lot of energy,” said Nickelberry. “Then the veteran players have come in and contributed. They are all beginning to come together and understand the formula.”
Nickelberry is hoping that the team can continue its success in what is an important game against the Hornets. The Bison prevailed 72-65 on December 6 at Burr Gymnasium and have won two in a row against one of their rivals. Freshman forward Prince Okoroh led a balanced attack with a career-high 21 points in that game.
Another key factor for the Bison has been in the free throw shooting category. The team started the season strong, shooting 72 percent as a team but fatigue became a factor and Howard faltered in some games, shooting poorly from the charity stripe.
That has changed. During the recent stretch, the team has shot over 70 percent, but more importantly, an average of 85 percent in the second half of games. Thompson, in particular, has proven to be what the doctor ordered with his ability to break down the defense, get to the rim, draw fouls and convert free throws into points.
Howard has some added incentive. A victory over Delaware State would give the team 10 victories, marking the first time that the program has reached double digit victories since 2003. Additionally, a win, along with some factors, and the Bison could possibly get a Number 6 seed, the highest they have had in almost a decade.
‘I like the way that we are playing right now,” said Nickelberry. “Players have begun to understand their roles and we are playing with more confidence. If we continue to rebound, play good defense and hit our free throws, we have a chance.”
But the Hornets have also made some changes since then that resulted in winning 12 of 14 conference games. Delaware State (13-12, 10-3 in the MEAC) is currently tied for second with Norfolk State and with a win over the Bison and a combination of other factors, the Hornets could win the regular season title and go into the tournament as the top seed.
Delaware State has parlayed some outstanding defense and the offensive production of freshman Tahji Tate, who is averaging 16.5 points, sophomore guard Casey Walker, who is averaging 12.5, and junior forward Marques Oliver, who averages 11.1, into a formula for success.
The defense features senior forward James Marcellus, who has blocked 55 shots and is one of the reasons that the Hornets lead the MEAC in that category and rank among the nation’s best.
The Delaware State features two victories in overtime during this stretch, including in double overtime and several nailbitters.
It should make for an interesting matchup. The game can be heard on the Internet by logging onto www.1290Theticket.com