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Slowed by multiple shutdowns, the Alabama A&M rebuild presses on

The Bulldogs are undefeated with a whopping 2-0 record.

Alabama A&M v Cincinnati Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

This weekend’s action started with nine undefeated teams. Two Patriot League teams, American and Loyola-Maryland, hadn’t even taken the floor yet (thanks, COVID-19), and the rest of the list was Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan, Drake, Winthrop, Siena, and Alabama A&M.

Not the Crimson Tide. The Alabama A&M Bulldogs out of Normal, Ala.

Yes, a closer examination shows AAMU is only 2-0, but before you dismiss the team that was atop the first RPI release of the 2020-21 campaign (OK, that was a little ridiculous), consider that teams in the SWAC usually spend November and December galavanting around the country collecting paychecks in return for being on the wrong end of lopsided results.

And even a 2-0 start is worth celebrating in Normal. Alabama A&M won its first three games against Division I competition in 2015-16, which was only the second time in the school’s D-1 history that it won its opener. Alas, it was downhill from there, and AAMU went on to finish 11-18, 6-12 in the SWAC.

Things got worse from there. The next season, the Bulldogs were 2-27 and finished No. 351 in KenPom. There were only 351 teams. Donnie Marsh then took over for Willie Hayes in 2017-18, and went 3-28, again dead last in KenPom. Marsh resigned and assistant Dylan (pronounced DYE-lan) Howard was promoted. Maybe no one else wanted the job, but Howard didn’t care. Where others saw a train wreck, Howard saw opportunity. One he had waited for since coaching Division III Hardin-Simmons 15 years earlier.

AAMU went only 5-28 in Howard’s first year, but did move up to No. 344 nationally (take that, New Hampshire and Chicago State). However, it was last season, with brand new recruits, that the Bulldogs began to grow, even if it wasn’t always visible on the scoreboard. Although his team went just 8-22 (5-13 in the SWAC), Howard knew the future was bright.

“Technically last year’s class was my first full recruiting class,” Howard said. “By the end of last season, we had to be the youngest team in the nation because we started five freshmen. Four of those guys returned and they’re all starters and we brought in another really good recruiting class.”

Cameron Alford transferred, but the other four — Jalen Johnson, Cameron Tucker, Garrett Hicks, and 6-foot-10 E.J. Williams — remain. Like everyone, their season was delayed, but when they finally got on the court Nov. 29, they won a 78-76 comeback thriller at Samford, with point guard Tucker finishing at the rim in the final seconds for the game-winner.

They were supposed to play Ohio State a few days later, but — you guessed it — positive COVID tests shut them down and cancelled a subsequent game with North Alabama as well. But on Dec. 19, the Bulldogs were back with another classic, losing a 19-point second half lead against South Alabama and finding a way to prevail 93-90 in double overtime. This time it was freshman Jevon Tatum who saved the day, forcing the second OT with a tough 18-footer at the buzzer.

The Bulldogs broke for Christmas, came back hungry to take on the SWAC and then….

Another COVID-19 positive test. AAMU’s first four SWAC games were postponed, and it meant the Bulldogs would go another full month without playing a game.

It was time, again, to get creative. Restricted to their dorm rooms, Howard enlisted the help of whomever was available (the SWAC is scheduled to play football in the spring) and laid out plans as best he could.

“We’ve tried to be inventive,” Howard said. “When we were on shut down, our Strength and Conditioning Coach and one of our assistant coaches took them through a routine where at least we’re getting some kind of cardio work in. Just to be doing something. A lot of film, a lot of Zoom, just have to find a way.”

The players could finally put their phones to good use.

“When we quarantined in our rooms, we would do workouts they sent us on our phones,” Johnson said. “Do what we can, push-ups, sit-ups, jump around, whatever. It was weird, but it’s what we could do.”

Johnson has made the most of the limited opportunities he’s had this year, winning back-to-back SWAC Player of the Week awards. He scored 28 against Samford and added 24 points and 11 rebounds in the South Alabama win, shooting 70% from the field in the process.

There is no outrageous story about how Johnson got from Indianapolis to Alabama A&M, except that both Howard and assistant Antwain Banks are both Hoosiers. Banks was a head coach at Division II Kentucky State and an assistant at IUPUI. He knew Johnson’s high school coach, Johnson had few other offers, and here he is. Johnson struggled a bit his freshman year, but seems to have figured it out.

“With the offers I had, when I came on my visit here, I just felt comfortable right away,” Johnson said. “And I wanted to get away from home, so I decided to come here. It was a little bit of a struggle last year adjusting to the college game. But this year is going much better, at least until this pause. We’re certainly ready now.”

Howard added: “In all honesty, we got a steal in Jalen. A lot of schools in Indiana and the Midwest, we felt they slept on him and we’re happy to have him. We have a lot of diamonds in the rough that for whatever reason other schools just slept on, but we’re happy to develop them and we’re going to have one heck of a team.”

There have been glory days at Alabama A&M, most of them when they were a fixture in the national Division II rankings in the 1980s and 90s under legendary coach Vann Pettaway. Elmore Gym, affectionately known as “The Dog House,” was even once voted the most intimidating venue for visitors in Division II.

Pettaway was head coach through the 2010-11 season and AAMU has one Division I NCAA Tournament appearance to its name (2005). Two Bulldogs feature prominently in the NCAA record books: Desmond Cambridge still holds the Division I record for steals in a season (5.5 average in 2001-02), while Mickell Gladness’s 16 blocks in a 2007 game against Texas Southern still stands as an all-time mark.

But the Bulldogs haven’t posted a winning SWAC record since 2013-14, and 2004-05 was its only SWAC title ever.

Predicting the future is an especially tricky venture these days. For instance, Alabama A&M’s game against rival Alabama State was supposed to be a doubleheader with its women’s teams also playing, but the women’s game was recently postponed due to a COVID-19 case within the Bulldogs’ program.

It seems safe to say, however, that Alabama A&M’s days at the very bottom of the KenPom rankings are gone for the foreseeable future. With this year’s NCAA Tournament in Indiana, it would be a sweet time for Howard and his staff to break through, but he knows AAMU’s brightest days might go beyond 2021 (Alabama A&M was picked just eighth in the SWAC this season). Hopefully with a full Dog Pound behind him by then.

“We know even though we’re young, we’re improving game by game,” Howard said. “Eventually we’re going to win a SWAC championship. Recently, the NCAA has helped everybody out because you can bring back everybody for an extra year now, so we feel as though we’re going to have this team for the next three or four years, and we could be something special.”