Kevin Nickelberry could have opted for a conventional approach as his second season as Howard’s basketball coach approached its end and his first full recruiting class settled in.
Instead, he tried something else — providing an extended preview of what is to come.
With five freshmen in the starting lineup, the Bison have split their past four games, including Monday’s 54-46 defeat of Morgan State in Baltimore, to offer an early glimpse of a team Nickelberry hopes soon will end a decade’s worth of losing.
“They make a lot of mistakes, but they don’t believe they’re going to lose,” said Nickelberry, who made the switch to the all-freshmen lineup Jan. 28. “They haven’t lost as much. We need an infusion of excitement and energy, and those guys have brought a lot of excitement. Their confidence is sometimes too high, but it’s something we needed at that time.”
The Bison (6-18, 3-8 MEAC), who meet Florida A&M (7-17, 5-5) at Burr Gymnasium on Saturday, are hardly a juggernaut. But there’s also hope, no small thing for a program 10 years removed from its most-recent winning season. Howard’s last NCAA tournament appearance? A one-game cameo as a No. 16 seed in 1992.
The optimism stems from a six-man group likely to emerge as the program’s nucleus in the next few years. Prince Okoroh was a fixture in the lineup from the beginning, starting all but two games. Point guard Simuel Frazier leads the Bison in minutes and has started in a little more than half of Howard’s games.
Others, such as Brandon Bailey, Oliver Ellison and Brandon Ford, weren’t regular starters for much of their first college season — at least until now.
“That recruiting class with those six freshmen was top 55 in the country,” Nickelberry said. “At some point, you have to play them.”
Invariably, there were bound to be some off nights with such a young roster. It might be even more true now that Nickelberry is intent on finding opportunities for them.
But it also makes for an intriguing team, one capable of pulling a surprise or two in the final month of the season.
“Personally, I think we have as much talent as anybody in the MEAC,” Frazier said. “It just took some time to put it together. We’d never played with each other before. I feel like we’re starting to come together more as a team.”
The past four games suggest as much. The Bison trailed Savannah State and Maryland-Eastern Shore by a possession at halftime, only to fade to double-digit losses. In between, they also upended last-place South Carolina State.
But Monday probably was the biggest step. Morgan State is struggling, but it still is one of the top teams in the MEAC over the past five years and had won eight straight from the Bison.
While Howard’s shooting and penchant for turnovers reflected the reality freshmen combined to play 133 of 200 available minutes, its defense did not. The Bison held Morgan State to one field goal in the final 13:26 to grind out a meaningful if not especially artistic victory.
“That’s who we are,” Nickelberry said. “We’re not the prettiest girl at the party, by no means. But we’re not trying to be the prettiest girl. We’re trying to be the toughest girl.”
On some nights, it will be enough. On others, Nickelberry (a former head coach at Hampton and assistant at Charlotte and Clemson) will need to remind himself of the youthful group he’s fielding.
After all, he’s well-aware this is just the start of something he hopes will get much better, with nights like Monday serving as rewards to savor along the way.
“Some of these guys have already played more minutes now than they played their whole high school senior year,” Nickelberry said. “It’s about me being patient. I’m not really a patient coach. Coming from Hampton and Clemson, we won a lot. I have to learn patience. It’s not all about the wins. It’s nice to get wins. It’s about seeing these guys grow.”