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Thursday, June 20, 2024

A focus on college basketball is one way HBCUs can reach NCAA glory

The NCAA tournament has been fun to watch in both men’s and women’s basketball, especially with Grambling State winning its first-ever tournament game.

Howard’s men took Wagner to the wire, and Norfolk State and Jackson State earned respect and praise from two of women’s basketball’s power programs.

We’ve also had HBCUs win games in the women’s NIT as well as the men’s CIT this week, which leads me to this conclusion: basketball is the sport our athletic departments and school administrations should focus their energy on.


The NCAA Tournament consistently is one of the most watched events on the sports calendar (the men’s tournament’s first day posted the highest ratings and viewership in over a decade). The 2023 Celebration Bowl pulled in nearly half a million viewers more than the Football Championship Subdivision championship game.

Imagine if HBCU hoops started pulling upsets like Yale and Oakland (Michigan) did this past weekend.

Wait, we don’t have to imagine. Norfolk State (2012), Hampton (2001), Coppin State (1997) and Southern (1993) have all won tournament games as a 14 seed or lower on the men’s side.

Also, the burgeoning interest in women’s basketball means this is a great opportunity for HBCUs to appeal to girls who are looking for an opportunity not just to play college basketball but to be around people who look like them.

Norfolk State Athletics/Twitter

There are so many ways that HBCU basketball programs can make inroads toward progress and program building. For one, embracing the transfer portal will be key. Athletes will come and leave. Free will allow them to do so. The objective for coaches is to ensure their programs appeal to kids who are looking for opportunities as well as kids who genuinely have an interest in HBCUs.

The downside of the portal — players leaving — comes with the territory. Offering a player an opportunity to develop to be seen at the Power Five level feels like being a second option, but it’s a risk schools must be willing to take.

More often than not, players will stay put once they see the opportunities for greener grass, which is a mirage. Over 700 players have entered the portal as of Friday, and there are only so many open spots at the Division I level.

And, of course, there’s NIL, the game changer that has the NCAA public officials scrambling. Athletes are now free to make money by promoting and advertising businesses, restaurants, and more. Partnering up with local establishments to form an insulated NIL program that will appeal to potential recruits will show that HBCU schools are keeping up with the times.

Finally, improving fan support will lead to better basketball and resources. Improving alumni attendance, making game times, and creating promotions to get students to the gyms will show the top high school players that the excitement they’re receiving at the high school level only gets better if they play at your university.


One recruiting class can change the narrative and trajectory of a program. Photo: Jackson State Athletics

Make no mistake, this is not a call to abandon football. The football attendance numbers, particularly for regular season games and even the Celebration Bowl, are far too high for that.

But football is just one way to appeal to the current and next generations. There needs to be years of build-up for football to take hold at some universities.

With basketball, one recruiting class can change the narrative and trajectory of a program. If HBCU conferences can develop competitive and winning programs at the D-I and D-II levels, the narrative will change from one of surprise whenever we compete to expectations of success before the game even tips off.

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