After a remarkable 2015-16 campaign, which saw Morehead State finish with a 23-14 mark, including 11-5 in Ohio Valley Conference and a trip to a national postseason title showdown in College Basketball Invitational, coach Sean Woods’ Eagles are hoping to do even better this winter.
Woods, a former UK standout who is beginning his fifth season at MSU, said his Eagles have the potential to do very well in the upcoming season, especially if they overcome two losses from last year’s squad -- standout guards Corban Collins (who transferred to Alabama as a graduate student) and Brent Arrington.
“Talent-wise I think we are there, I mean we have some good guys. We haven’t played any games yet. I don’t know how good this team is going to be compared to teams I’ve had in the past because of my guard play,” said Woods (pictured), who recently signed a contract extension with the school through 2019-20.
“I don’t have the veterans I’ve had for a while. I had Corban Collins for three years, Brent (Arrington) four or five years – the guys who played especially with significant minutes and been in some big-time games. It was their team.
“(Future standouts) have to be consistent leaders, consistent gamers and that remains to be seen so in practice we are trying to simulate some type of situation to put them in positions where they have to be leaders. They must step up and control the situations and things like that from a leadership standpoint. That’s the big question right now but potential is there.”
And in last week’s preseason media poll by OVC, MSU was well-respected as it was picked to finish No. 3 in the league’s East division (along with two first-place votes), behind No. 1 and defending conference champion Belmont (12 first-place votes) and No. 2 Tennessee State.
In his four-year tenure at MSU, Woods has compiled a 75-63 record. He has more victories in his first four seasons than any coach in program history. He was asked about his favorite memory so far at Morehead State.
“When I got here, I planted the seed and I’m watching it grow each year with the following, the enthusiasm, with people around our program, with the fans and we continue to get better players and better character players more so than what we’ve had in a long while,” he said. “That’s my finest memory right now, just coming in here and seeing hoe it was when I first got here until now.”
Considering Morehead State’s somewhat remote location in northeastern Kentucky away from the bright lights of Louisville, Cincinnati and Lexington, Woods has done an admirable job in recruiting.
Woods said, “Location is the challenging part just because when you’re recruiting inner- city kids from other states, they’ve never heard of Morehead and if they do it is considered Appalachia or Eastern Kentucky. But once they get here they are highly surprised. Getting them here and sparking interest is the goal. We are planning more games on national television. Our brand is expanding since we’ve been here because of the success we’ve had so we have to build on that more so than anything.”
At least four games on MSU’s 2016-17 schedule will be on national television. On Thursday, Dec. 22, Morehead State will play at Mississippi State and it will be televised by the SEC Network. In mid-January, Belmont will travel to meet the Eagles on ESPNU. February matchups against Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech will be shown on ESPNU and CBS Sports Network, respectively.
Morehead State’s non-conference action won’t be easy this winter, especially the ones on the road, but that’s what the coach wants. Woods is preparing his team to be ready by the time March Madness rolls around. In addition to SEC’s Mississippi State, MSU travels to ACC’s Pittsburgh in late November and Big Ten’s Purdue in early December.
"It's another tough schedule, and that's been the story of our lives the last few years,” commented Woods. “But we want to play against the best. We use our tough schedule to get better throughout the year and it helps recruiting because guys know they're going to get to play against the best in the country.”
Morehead State -- which is led by a pair of seniors in 6-6 forward DeJuan “Rico” Marrero and 6-2 guard Xavier Moon -- will open its regular season with a home date with Kentucky Christian on Friday, Nov. 11. Marrero was the fifth-leading rebounder in OVC with a 7.2 average last season, while Moon averaged 10.2 points, which was good for second place in team scoring.
Before coming to Morehead State in 2012, replacing Donnie Tyndall (who moved on to Southern Mississippi and then Tennessee), Woods served as the head coach at Mississippi Valley State for four years. In his first year at MVSU, he compiled a 7-25 mark before improving to 21-13 with an appearance in the Big Dance in his final year. For his efforts in 2011-12, Woods was chosen as the Southwestern Athletic Conference Coach of the Year. In addition, he received the Ben Jobe Award, which honors the top minority coach in NCAA Division I men’s college basketball.
During his first year at MSU, as you may remember, his Eagles played the mighty Kentucky Wildcats before losing 81-70 in a very respectable showing at Rupp Arena. UK freshman Archie Goodwin led all scorers with 28 points.
The 46-year-old Woods, a key member of UK’s legendary Unforgettables team in 1992, said he wouldn’t mind sending his squad for another meeting in Lexington to meet the Wildcats. Only for the right reason.
“If the situation is right, yeah,” he said. “I don’t want to play them when they’re dominant. I like to play them when they’re young and have a bunch of new guys coming in because they are always going to be talented and always have pros on the team but they’re not always going to be experienced. I want to play teams where I have a good showing. I don’t want to play teams just because I’m playing Kentucky. I want to have a chance to win or have some success against them.”
While at Mississippi Valley State, Woods also faced the Wildcats in Lexington twice, losing 88-65 to Billy Gillispie’s club in 2008 and 85-60 to John Calipari’s team in 2010.
Woods, by the way, still ranks No. 5 on UK’s all-time assist list and led the team in assists in each of his three seasons at Kentucky. As you may recall, he was a key participant in the famous Kentucky-Duke NCAA regional finals in 1992, scoring 21 points with nine assists in UK’s 104-103 loss.
The ex-Wildcat guard said that matchup still hurts.
Well, Woods may be an Eagle right now, but he will always be a Wildcat hero as far as the Big Blue Nation is concerned.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
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