JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Even Without UK, March Madness Still Has Kentucky Wildcat Flavor
Over the years, the men’s NCAA Tournament party, popularly known as the Big Dance, usually has invited the Kentucky Wildcats as a very important guest.
But that isn’t the case this time as the 9-16 Wildcats suffered one of their worst hoops seasons in school history.
Fortunately, if you are a true fan, the 2021 March Madness will still be fun as the 68-team event will have some UK flavor as well as six SEC teams.
(At this writing, the league also had Ole Miss as a possible replacement for the NCAA in case one of the NCAA participants had to sit out due to COVID-19. Ex-UK standout and coach Travis Ford’s Saint Louis team was also one of the four possible COVID replacements.)
Well, how about Morehead State as a Cinderella in the Big Dance? The 23-7 Eagles, who captured the Ohio Valley Conference tournament to clinch the league’s automatic berth in NCAA tourney, will be making its first trip to the big show since 2011 when then-coach Donnie Tyndall’s club upset Louisville 62-61 in the first round before dropping to Richmond 65-48.
Now leading the No. 14 seed Eagles, who face No. 3 West Virginia on Friday, is former UK assistant Preston Spradlin, a Pikeville, Ky., native who was assistant director of operations for UK’s 2012 national championship team. Overall, Spradlin – who has a history degree from Alice Lloyd College and a master’s degree in kinesiology and health promotion (with a sports leadership emphasis) from UK – spent five seasons with coach John Calipari’s Wildcats.
As you may recall, back in November, Morehead State visited Kentucky where the Eagles dropped 81-45 at Rupp Arena. It was the first official game Spradlin had coached against his former boss in Calipari. Both schools also clashed in an exhibition game in 2017 which was Spradlin’s first official year as head coach at MSU.
In a post-game press conference in 2017, Spradlin was asked about the servant leadership when he was on Calipari’s staff.
Said Spradlin, "It goes hand-in-hand in being part of the team. We said it the other day in the press conference, and (Calipari) is the mastermind of doing it, bringing guys together, getting them to be selfless, getting them to think about others is a hard thing to do especially with young guys. I have six freshmen. (Calipari) has eight. I have two new players. It's a hard thing to do. All of these kids go from being the best player on their high school or junior college team – or wherever they were before – to now everybody is good. They may have played against three, four, or five Division I players last year.
“Well, every time we tip it up, the other team has 13 of them, so you have to get ready for that. The only way that you do that – you can't just go out and hoop. You can't just say, 'I'm a good player, and I'm going to do exactly what I did to be successful.' You have to do it together. That servant leadership part goes into that. We're finding our footing just like (Calipari) is because there's nobody walking in the door and saying, 'Here's a 'C.' Put it on your chest, you're our leader.' We don't have that. You just have to figure it out as you go along. The best way you do that is relieve the pressure off the individuals by making their focus be on other people, and games like this certainly echo that message."
Current UK basketball publicist Eric Lindsey once shared an office with Spradlin at Kentucky. He said he is pulling for Spradlin, who is now in his fourth season as full-time head coach at MSU, to do well in the tournament.
“Good things happen to good people. Rooting hard for Coach Spradlin in the postseason,” Lindsey wrote in a partial Tweet.
For Morehead State, a player to watch out for Johni Broome, a 6-10, 235-pounder from Plant City, Fla. Broome, who last week became just the third freshman in OVC history to be named conference tournament MVP, leads the team in scoring (13.9 points) and rebounding (9.0).
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Another NCAA tournament squad to follow is Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino and his Iona College team. As you know, it was Pitino who once rescued UK basketball from severe NCAA penalties over 30 years ago and brought the Wildcats back to elite status.
Pitino, who took over the Iona program during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, has now taken five different programs to the NCAA tournament, and won two national championships at Kentucky and Louisville.
Located about 20 miles from New York City with nearly 3,000 students, Iona has two freshmen from the state of Kentucky on the roster who saw very little action this season. They are 6-10 Trey James from Martin County High School and 6-4 Jordan Brooks from East Carter High.
James officially joined Iona in January after graduating early from high school. During his junior year in 2019-20, he averaged 14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds while leading Martin County to its first 15th Region title since 1983. A four-star recruit, James also holds the state record for career blocks.
Jordan Brooks, a rookie walk-on whose father is Delray Brooks, the former Mr. Basketball from the state of Indiana. The elder brooks played for Pitino’s 1987 Final Four team at Providence after transferring from Bobby Knight-coached Indiana. By the way, one of Brooks’ teammates at Providence was ex-UK assistant Billy Donovan, now the boss of NBA’s Chicago Bulls.
No. 15 seed Iona (12-5) plays No. 2 Alabama (24-6) on Saturday.
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Coach Mark Pope’s Brigham Young team is another one to follow this week. The former Wildcat standout will guide the No. 6 seed Cougars (20-6) against the winner of the No. 11 seed Michigan/UCLA matchup.
The 6-10 Pope, who is now in his second season at the BYU helm, had the most wins for a first-year coach in program history last season when the Cougars posted a record of 24-8.
In 1996, Pope helped Pitino’s 34-2 Cats capture the SEC regular season crown and the NCAA title.
After several years in NBA, Pope, who has a degree in English from UK, also completed two years of medical school at New York’s Columbia University before entering the coaching profession.
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Another school to watch for is Florida State and coach Leonard Hamilton.
Hamilton was a 12-year assistant at Kentucky, nearly all under coach Joe B. Hall, including eight SEC regular season championships, three Final Fours and 1978 national championship. In 1980, he was named UK’s first associate head coach in school basketball history. Hamilton spent one year with new coach Eddie Sutton at Kentucky before he left for his first head coaching post at Oklahoma State in 1986. And he still has several relatives living in the Lexington area.
Along with Calipari and Pitino, Hamilton, 72, is one of a handful of NCAA coaches with head coaching experience in the NBA.
Now in his 19th season at Florida State, Hamilton is the school’s all-time winningest coach and is No. 5 on the all-time winningest coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference history.
The No. 4 Seminoles (16-6) meet No. 13 UNC-Greensboro on Saturday.
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Speaking of Kentucky’s 1977-78 NCAA championship season, many folks enjoyed the remarkable “Win or Else” documentary that aired Monday night on the SEC Network. The television program featured an in-depth look at the UK team (30-2) that captured the first NCAA title for an integrated team in school’s tradition-rich history.
It was a memorable campaign as yours truly covered some UK games as a sportswriter for the Kentucky Kernel, the student daily newspaper.
All-American Jack Givens, who played at Lexington Bryan Station High School, was on that team and narrated the program.
“Even though I grew up 15 minutes from what was one of the best basketball schools in the country, I didn’t dream of playing basketball at Kentucky like most of my white friends did,” said Givens, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 1978 Final Four. “Coach (Adolph) Rupp was winning games and championships, but I never watched because I didn’t see anyone on the team who looked like me.
“Coach (Joe B.) Hall started changing the culture and I started thinking about going there for my college basketball career. Still, when it came time for me to pick a school, the decision was not as easy as you would think. But it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.”
The documentary is directed by David Beilinson and produced by Neil Amdur.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of five books about UK basketball, including recently-published “Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey.” He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com Magazine, and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via email at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.