March 25, 2024 

Despite NCAA Tournament losses, Jackson State, Norfolk State continue growing HBCU awareness and respect

Tomekia Reed: 'A lot of times, it's overlooked. What we do, we're doing the same thing with less'

Jackson State head coach Tomekia Reed has a bigger purpose.

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“For me at Jackson State, you know, I wanted to put not only our university on the map,” said Reed during her postgame press conference following Jackson State’s 86-64 setback to Connecticut in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. “I wanted to put HBCUs on the map. We have such a special community that a lot of people overlook. We have a community that’s not built on wins and losses but built on family and love. And, you know, I want to be a great representation of that. I’m an advocate for HBCUs.”

Throughout history, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been engines of economic empowerment for the communities they serve. HBCUs have nurtured some of the country’s most exceptional leaders and been nerve centers of major social movements. They have played a pivotal role in American history and culture, remaining essential resources in the nation’s educational system, and serving as incubators of inclusiveness, excellence, and creativity.

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Since the early 90s, HBCUs (all of which play within mid-major conferences), have been given some of the lowest seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) teams have been subjected to low seeds for a variety of reasons, one being the metrics the committee uses, which typically rank the two conferences in the bottom third of Division I.

Among some of the criteria used by the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee to evaluate a team includes (alphabetically): Common opponents, competitive in losses, conference record, early competition versus late competition, head-to-head outcomes, NET ranking, non-conference record, overall record, significant wins, strength of conference, and strength of schedule.

This was unfortunate this year for Jackson State, which was seeded 14th, and Norfolk State, which was seeded 15th. However, their seeding was understandable because out of 32 conferences, the SWAC was rated 29th and the MEAC was 30th. Even for all its brilliance this season, including a top 25 ranking, Fairfield earned a No. 13 seed because its mid-major conference is ranked 27th.

Jackson State set a school record for wins in a season with 26 this season. The Tigers were seeded 14th and fell to third-seeded UConn in the NCAA Tournament last weekend. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)
Jackson State set a school record for wins in a season with 26 this season. The Tigers were seeded 14th and fell to third-seeded UConn in the NCAA Tournament last weekend. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra / The Next)

This past season when given the opportunity, Southern defeated Oklahoma, Arkansas Pine-Bluff beat Arkansas, Grambling State prevailed over Arizona State and Coppin State knocked off Pittsburgh. LSU did play a true road game at Coppin State in December, mostly because of Baltimore native Angel Reese.

“I’m an advocate for our representation, our proper representation, and I commend our coaches when they do a good job when they win big games because when they do well, it makes their entire conference look good,” Reed said. “It makes all HBCUs do good when they do a good job. We have some really good basketball, and that’s what it’s all about. We want the best representation to come to the NCAA Tournament so we can bring an awareness of what we do and who we are and an awareness to our community and continue to hope that we can continue to grow the greatness within it.”

Facing disrespect

Layers of disrespect manifested themselves last week when, during Jackson State’s press conference a reporter opened his questioning by referring to HBCUs as HSBCs. Probably a slip of the tongue, but one that shouldn’t happen. A second instance occurred during the Norfolk State-Stanford broadcast when the Spartans of Norfolk State were called the Hornets at least twice. For the record, Delaware State is the Hornets. These separate incidents 3,000 miles apart feed the narrative that HBCU women’s basketball programs aren’t properly respected or cared about by the media.

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In addition to quality basketball, HBCUs are renowned for their academic excellence, cultural richness, and role as a pathway to prosperity. They produce 40 percent of all Black engineers, 40 percent of Black congress members, 50 percent of Black lawyers, and 80 percent of all Black judges while supplying more Black applicants to medical schools than non-HBCU institutions, according to statistics from the United States Department of Education. 

With an unshakable resolve and uplifting grit, there’s a special pride in representing an HBCU.

“I love my HBCU,” Jackson State guard Ti’lan Boler said during the postgame press conference at UConn.

‘Representing an HBCU is an honor’

Jackson State’s game against UConn was on ABC, adding extra prestige to the opportunity the Tigers had to compete against one of the sport’s greatest programs.

“It’s always an honor as an HBCU coming into the NCAA Tournament to represent HBCUs as a whole, so I wouldn’t say there’s pressure, but it’s an honor to be here,” Jackson State’s Miya Crump said during Friday’s pre-practice press conference. “We all know as HBCUs, we don’t get the coverage we should get. So, playing on ABC is a wonderful opportunity for all our fans and supporters to watch us play and do what we do.”

The Tigers acquitted themselves and their program well on the national stage.

Crump set social media on fire when she was called for goaltending after sprinting and leaping high to pin Paige Bueckers‘ shot off the glass. It was a highlight-reel moment that had fans in awe. Meanwhile, Boler showed the nation her talent by scoring 25 points and making a variety of jumpers from all over the Gampel Pavilion court.

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Across the country, Norfolk State’s Diamond Johnson, a talented guard who had played at Rutgers and North Carolina State before transferring to the Spartans earlier this year, wowed the Stanford crowd by making tough shots against Stanford’s taller players. She finished with 19 points. Norfolk State kept up early and trailed by just three points after the first quarter, but ultimately fell to the Cardinal, 79–50.

“First, I want to congratulate Norfolk State on the great season that they had and how hard they played, and Diamond Johnson was really — she’s a really terrific player,” said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer during her opening remarks following Stanford’s win over Norfolk State. “I thought we worked — we had to work really hard to get this win. They’re really a complete team. They play a different style than probably we’ve played against a lot. They press and play more of a three-two zone. But they’re very capable of mixing it up.”

MEAC Player of the Year Kierra Wheeler anchored a Spartan defense that gave Stanford fits early in the game, which Vanderveer acknowledged during her postgame remarks.

“I definitely appreciate her saying that,” Wheeler said. “It means a lot to us, and we’ve got to keep the standard the same because our defensive intensity will always keep us there in the games, and that’s what we take pride in. So, I’m glad we are getting recognition because a lot of hard work goes into our defense.”

Johnson added her thoughts on Vanderveer’s comments, “It’s just a sign of respect. That was nice to hear from the winningest coach in Division One basketball. So that’s love, and we respect her, too. What she has done at Stanford is kind of cool. Kind of cool for her to say that.”

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma had plenty of positives regarding Jackson State head coach Tomekia Reed and her program following their win over the Tigers in the NCAA First Round (Photo credit: Dominic Allegra)
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma had plenty of positives regarding Jackson State head coach Tomekia Reed and her program following their win over the Tigers in the NCAA First Round (Photo credit: Dominic Allegra / The Next)

Coaches Speaking Up

Over the last two years, prominent coaches in women’s basketball have spoken up to bring more awareness to the excellence happening with many HBCU programs.

Last year, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, owner of two national championships, opened her NCAA press conference after beating Norfolk State by letting everybody know she didn’t think Norfolk State was a No. 16 seed. Following a regular season victory over Morgan State in December, Staley was complimentary of Bears head coach Ed Davis. She even said she would implement some of his offensive sets.

This year, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma spoke highly Reed’s sustained excellence during his postgame press conference. Jackson State was one of six Division I programs that finished a perfect run through its regular-season conference schedule. The other schools were Connecticut, Fairfield, South Carolina, South Dakota State, and Gonzaga.

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Auriemma knows a thing or two about going undefeated, considering he had led the Huskies to an unfathomable 111-game winning streak and has six of the nine perfect seasons in women’s basketball history. He was impressed with Reed’s body of work during her time, which included two undefeated SWAC campaigns in the last three seasons.

“They certainly don’t get on TV enough,” Auriemma said. “They certainly don’t get enough recognition and I wanted to let her know that and that I wanted to put myself out there for her. We need coaches like her to be celebrated, and bigger schools need not keep recycling coaches that are let go by other Power Five schools, whatever you want to call them. They should start looking outside the box a little bit because there’s a lot of great coaches out there, and she’s one of them.”

Angel Jackson had 13 points and two blocked shots for Jackson State against UConn. (Photo credit: Dominic Allegra / The Next)

Challenges faced by HBCU programs

There’s no secret that coaching at any level is a hard job to begin with. 

HBCU coaches face double the challenge than many of their coaching counterparts due to limited budgets, scarce resources, and the absence of multi-bid league security. Achieving sustained success requires them to work twice as hard, relying on creativity and innovation in recruiting strategies, scheduling, staffing, traveling, academic monitoring, and roster management. 

One example of the inequities faced by HBCU programs was illustrated in a recent article in Sportico, where it was revealed that UConn, which also produced the highest-spending top seed on the men’s side, has the second-largest women’s basketball budget at $8.5 million. This is 11 times more than Jackson State, which spends under a million dollars on women’s basketball.

Despite these obstacles, coaches at HBCU programs serve as catalysts for excellence, transforming lives on and off the courts. They create environments where student-athletes can flourish and discover their inner greatness.

“It’s really important and I’m extremely thankful that coaches are recognizing what we can do at this level,” Reed said. “A lot of times, it’s not taken seriously. A lot of times, it’s overlooked. What we do, we’re doing the same thing with less. We’re getting our players prepared to play at this level with a lot less than what these bigger schools have and to have these coaches call that moment out is a really good feeling.”

Norfolk State has been a beacon of excellence under head coach Larry Vickers, who took over the program on Jan. 20, 2016, in the middle of a 3–24 season. He coached the final 11 games (earning the three victories) before being hired full-time. Not counting the 2020–21 COVID campaign, in which Norfolk State played 14 contests, Vickers has seven winning seasons.

Vickers has won 167 games, building quietly, efficiently and passionately. Two years ago, the Spartans earned a share of their conference’s regular-season title for the first time in program history. They competed in the WNIT before falling to Drexel in the first round, 54–47. Last year, Norfolk State won 26 games, a school record for single-season wins surpassed by this year’s team that finished with 27 triumphs.

Meanwhile, Reed, a four-time SWAC Coach of the Year, has Jackson State on a current 32-game regular season winning streak against SWAC opponents. The Tigers have made three NCAA tournament appearances and had a WNIT berth in the last four seasons.

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Two years ago, behind the brilliance of Ameshya Williams-Holliday, Jackson State led LSU by 10 points in the fourth quarter in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Williams-Holiday later became the first HBCU player drafted to the WNBA since 2002, when she was selected by the Indiana Fever.

Reed has guided Jackson State to five straight SWAC regular-season titles (2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024) and four SWAC tournament titles. She has never had a losing record in her career, leading the Tigers to three straight seasons of 20 or more wins. 

The pillars of each program are the same: graduating student-athletes, defense, rebounding and resiliency.

Jackson State spent the month of December on the road at Kansas State, Texas, Miami, Oregon State and Mississippi State. Norfolk State played road games against Minnesota, Auburn and Wake Forest while playing two home non-conference contests. It’s a way of life, unfortunately for low-resourced programs to travel and play guaranteed games to earn money for their athletic departments.

Auriemma understands the grueling scheduling demands.

“It’s really hard to put together a schedule when you’re in their situation because everybody just wants you to come to their place,” Auriemma said. “So, they always play on the road against the best teams, probably lose, and then the reputation is, well, they’re good in their league, but they don’t compete nationally.”

Vickers says he believes that if Johnson had been with Norfolk State for the entire season, the Spartans could’ve earned a higher seed. Johnson missed Norfolk State’s first 10 games before being granted immediate eligibility following a court ruling in December, which allowed her to play despite being a two-time transfer. Norfolk State went 7–3 in those games.

“If we have Diamond a lot earlier, maybe we can get a 12 [seed] and we don’t have to see Stanford this year,” Vickers said. “So as we continue to try and schedule, we want to win some more nonconference high major games early to get to a Middle Tennessee State level where they are seeded 11th. That’s our next step, and hopefully, we can get there one day. “

Jackson State head coach Tomekia Reed has guided Jackson State to three straight win seasons. (Photo by Dominic Allegra)
Jackson State head coach Tomekia Reed has guided Jackson State to three straight 20-win seasons. (Photo by Dominic Allegra / The Next)

‘Proud to be a vessel’

The highest seed for a SWAC program in the last 25 years was 12. During the 1999 NCAA tournament, Grambling State dropped an 80-68 decision to Alabama at Chapel Hill. When it competed in the MEAC, Hampton was a 12 seed in the 2014 NCAA tournament falling to Michigan State, 91–61, also in Chapel Hill.

“I’m proud of the respect that people have for our program,” Reed said. “I’m thankful. I think collectively, we are growing. The NCAA has put so many HBCU coaches and athletic directors on the NCAA committees. That’s huge. I have been selected to be on the committee. Our voices are being heard. That’s big. And so, I’m just extremely proud to be a vessel. That’s all I want to do is to be a vessel.”

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Vickers understands there’s a lot more work to be done.

“As we begin to build our brand, we kind of want to be known as more than just HBCU basketball team even though we are that with the No. 1 HBCU band and No. 1 HBCU mascot,” Vickers said following the Stanford game in the postgame press conference. “We want to be more than just that. We want to be the program where when the next Diamond Johnson commits, it’s not on the ESPN ticker. So, we want to continue to build our brand and do things the right way and hope that recruits will continue to see what we do, love it, and then join us.”

With Reed speaking from her heart, the level of competition increasing, talent spreading out thanks to the transfer portal, and coaches intentionally using their massive platforms to advocate for HBCU programs, the tide may begin shifting in a meaningful direction. Another asset that helps is using social media and strategic storytelling to help strengthen the HBCU women’s basketball brand by providing a window into these programs and the outstanding players that represent them.

“I coach to win pre-season games against big schools,” Reed said. “I coach to be in a top 25 AP poll, you know? Why not? Why not Jackson State? So that’s why I coach. This is what I want to accomplish. That, to me, is knocking down walls. I am proud that Jackson State University has received national attention.”

“I’m just thankful for the space that has been provided. The good Lord has provided for us, and we want to continue to grow the game. The fight I am having for our University, conference, and the HBCU community is ongoing. If we’re not knocking down walls, the walls are being knocked down in other areas and by other schools in HBCU sports, so I’m extremely thankful for that.”

Written by Rob Knox

Rob Knox is an award-winning professional and a member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Athletics Hall of Fame. In addition to having work published in SLAM magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson, and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by CSC with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award and the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity award. Named a HBCU Legend by, Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators, formerly CoSIDA.

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