A conference championship in DI HBCU men's basketball means bragging rights and an automatic NCAA tournament berth. Last year, we saw two HBCUs secure auto-bids — Norfolk State and Texas Southern — but who could challenge the defending champions?
Here are the top challengers to every defending HBCU men's basketball conference champion.
Norfolk State is the two-time defending champion of the MEAC. Here's who can challenge the Spartans in 2022.
Top contender: North Carolina Central
After North Carolina Central was decimated by COVID-19 over the last two years, the Eagles look like a top challenger in the MEAC. North Carolina Central returns star guard Justin Wright, who became the youngest Eagle to earn First-Team All-MEAC honors last season. Wright averaged 20.1 points per game against conference opponents and enters his third season this winter.
Wright will be joined by impact transfers in the front court in 6'7'' forward Daniel Oladapo and 7'1'' center Brendan Medley-Bacon. The transfer duo gives North Carolina Central a formidable inside presence to match its perimeter scoring, making the Eagles a threat to return to the top of the MEAC for the first time since three-peating from 2017-19.
Howard finished as the second-best team in MEAC regular-season play last year before an upset knocked the Bison out of the postseason during the first round of the conference tournament. Howard lost guard Kyle Foster to the professional ranks, but guard Elijah Hawkins could take the next step in his second year. As a freshman, Hawkins led the Bison with 5.6 assists per game while averaging 13 points per game. With more efficient shooting, Hawkins could quickly become one of the top playmakers in the conference.
Howard also returns Steve Settles III, a 6'10'' forward that finished second on the team in scoring at 13.8 points per game while shooting 35 percent from three. When it comes to newcomers, Bison freshmen Shy Odom and Ose Okojie look to be contributors early. If those freshmen develop fast, Howard could redeem themselves from last year's postseason failure, despite zero first-place votes in the MEAC preseason poll.
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Texas Southern is the two-time defending SWAC conference tournament champion. Here's who can challenge the Tigers in 2022.
Top contender: Alcorn
Alcorn State is the defending regular season SWAC champion, returning plenty of talent from last year. Dominic Brewton and Keondre Montgomery were preseason All-SWAC selections, and Oddyst Walker figures to be one of the top defenders for the Braves. With redemption from last year's SWAC title game on the mind, Alcorn State should contend for the title.
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Top contender: Southern
Southern is a contender for the SWAC after bringing in transfer Bryson Etienne from Texas Southern. Etienne joins Tyrone Lyons, last year's leading scorer at 13.7 points per game on 42 percent shooting from three. Lyons, Brion Whitley, P.J. Byrd and Terrell Williams Jr. — a former SWAC Freshman of the Year — all shot over 35 percent from deep, and the Jaguars could be the best three-point shooting team in the conference.
If the returning players weren't enough Southern brought in an influx of talent from the Junior College level, with five JUCO transfers joining the team. If the new talent gels with the old talent by the end of the season, the Jaguars could be atop the SWAC.
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Bethune-Cookman could make a run at a SWAC title with Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Joe French, who averaged 15.7 points per game on 44.1 shooting from three. French won't be alone in the backcourt after former four-star recruit Zion Harmon joined the Wildcats. That backcourt could be the reason Bethune-Cookman surprises in the SWAC.