WASHINGTON -- It was one of those games in which you can count the "W" before you even play, but for Howard University, the Dec. 19 home game against Division II Paine College showed just how low a program can go.
"That was the lowest point for me, athletically, in my life," Howard guard Martin Huckaby said of the 79-78 loss that was, fortunately, watched by only 250 people. "Nothing against Paine College. But we played like a bunch of guys who had never touched a basketball before."
That loss dropped Howard's record to 1-8 (the one win was at Miami, of the Big East) and could have proved devastating for a team that had not finished above .500 since the 1987-88 season. Instead, the Bison used the loss as a launching pad for a successful season, landing in the NCAA tournament for just the second time in school history.
Howard (17-13) got to the tournament by winning the tournament championship in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The Bison will attempt to become the first MEAC team to win an NCAA tournament game today when they face No. 3 Kansas, the top seed in the Midwest.
After that loss to Paine, Howard coach Butch Beard was so upset that he cleared the gymnasium and conducted a post-game practice. That surprise move to shake up the team apparently worked: Two days later the Bison played tough in a 64-57 loss at Wisconsin -- a defeat that Huckaby said changed the course of the entire season.
"After that [Paine College] loss everyone's morale was down, and we just needed to get it out of our system," said Huckaby, who averages 7.0 points a game. "It really opened our eyes. In the Wisconsin game, we were in it the whole way and, with fewer mistakes, we could have won it."
The Bison finally got their second win in the next game against Towson State. Then, after going 3-2 in its first five MEAC games, Howard went on a seven-game winning streak to grab the league lead. The streak ended with losses at North Carolina A&T; and South Carolina State, but since then Howard has won five straight -- including a 67-65 win over Florida A&M;, during which the Bison had to overcome a 19-point second-half deficit.
The title marked a turnaround from a year ago when Howard, in Beard's first year, went 8-20. But the school's administration was happy with Beard, a star at Louisville who played 10 years in the NBA (he was an All-Star and won a championship with Golden State in 1975) and later was an assistant coach with the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
"He is the type of gentlemen we believe we can build a winning tradition around," said Howard president Franklyn G. Jenifer before the season. "[Beard's] appointment is consistent with our long-range goals to excel in whatever we do."
And they've excelled with team play, with just one player scoring in double figures (forward Julius McNeil, 12.4 points per game). There is no star system. Beard often substitutes five players at a time with a second unit called "the Horsemen."
Two local players are on the Howard squad. Ronald Cole, a senior center from Walbrook, is averaging 5.9 points in 17.1 minutes per game. Robert Riddick, a senior guard from Meade, is out with an injury but is traveling with the team to the tournament. Howard holds opponents to just 43.4 percent shooting from the field. In the past two years, 31 of 58 games have been decided by seven points or fewer -- last year's team went 3-13 in such games, while this year's club improved to 9-6. The three MEAC tournament games were won by four, three and two points.
"A lot of those games [Howard] won this year, they lost last year. Nothing beats experience," said Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell. "Butch does an excellent job.
"Of all the teams in the conference, they executed as well as anyone and they were very disciplined. They didn't want to lose when it came down the stretch. And that was the tangible that got them over the top."
Howard has made one previous NCAA appearance, losing 78-43 in a first-round game to Wyoming in 1981. This year's team is hoping to make a better showing.
"It's been a good feeling on campus, something the students haven't experienced in 11 years," Huckaby said. "The biggest feeling for me would be to win the first game. That would set this place off like never before."
Turning it around
Season. . .......Rec. . ., . .. ... Coach
1982-83. ... ..... 18-8. . ...... ... A.B. Williamson
1983-84. ....... ..14-13. .. ..... .. A.B. Williamson
.. .......15-11. . . . ..... A.B. Williamson
1985-86. ..........18-9. .. . ....... A.B. Williamson
1986-87. ... ......24-4. .......... . A.B. Williamson
1987-88. .. .......15-12. ....... ... A.B. Williamson
1988-89. .......... 9-19. .....,..... A.B. Williamson
1989-90. .. .. ... 8-19. ....... ... A.B. Williamson
1990-91. .......... 8-20. .... .......Butch Beard
1991-92. ...... ...17-13. .......... Butch Beard