Morehead St seeks another NCAA upset after 10-year absence

INDIANAPOLIS — Preston Spradlin didn’t fret when Morehead State stumbled out of the gate, and he’s making sure the Eagles aren’t comfortable despite their red-hot roll.

After all, there’s so much to achieve in their long-awaited return to the NCAA Tournament, as Kentucky’s lone representative yet.

Wednesday marked 10 years since Morehead State’s first-round upset of No. 4 seed Louisville in its last NCAA appearance. A chance to repeat history looms Friday night when the No. 13 seed Eagles (23-7) face (you guessed it) No. 4 West Virginia (18-9) at Lucas Oil Stadium.

While that pairing appears more coincidental, Morehead’s development isn’t. And the fourth-year coach is stressing the importance of sticking to the formula that lifted MSU from a 1-4 start.

“We’ve got the recipe to come down here and win and be successful, and we’re continuing to remind them we are not here for the experience,” Spradlin said this week in a virtual news conference. “We’re going to enjoy this experience, but we’re not coming down here to just say we made the NCAA Tournament. We’re coming down here to play our best basketball and to win games.”

Spradlin, a Pikeville, Kentucky, native and former UK staffer under coach John Calipari, has steadily built toward this since becoming interim coach in December 2016 following Sean Woods’ resignation amid an independent investigation of assault allegations by two players. Spradlin guided the 2-7 Eagles to a 12-9 finish to earn the job permanently, only to go 34-60 over the next three seasons.

Those down years suddenly seem long ago with their remarkable turnaround.

MSU is riding a 19-1 surge, the best 20-game stretch in program history. Its run includes an impressive sweep through the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, highlighted by an 86-71, championship game defeat of top-seeded Belmont to earn the mid-major league’s automatic bid. The Eagles had a week off before seeing their draw Sunday night and erupting jubilantly at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It’s been two years in the making,” Spradlin said. “I know that makes it extra special for myself and our program to be involved in the tournament this year.”

Calipari tweeted congratulations, calling Spradlin’s coaching job “incredible” and adding, “We are all proud of him!!!

Transfers including guards Skyelar Potter (Wright State) and KJ Hunt Jr. (McNeese State), and holdovers such as senior forward James Baker Jr. have helped provide experience. Freshman forward Johni Broome, the OVC’s top freshman and tournament MVP, has been the most critical addition, anchoring the post with 13.9 points and nine rebounds per game.

Developing familiarity and chemistry with four new starters took a minute, and early season non-conference routs by Kentucky, Richmond and Ohio State followed. Spradlin expected growing pains but noticed promise after a double-digit loss at then-No. 24 Clemson in December.

MSU ran off 12 consecutive OVC wins and haven’t looked back.

“That was when we knew we had a pretty special team,” said Baker, the team’s lone senior and a four-year player. “We just had to stay consistent and stick together.”

Defense has been the Eagles’ strength, which they’ll need against a Mountaineers squad with five capable high scorers. Veteran coach Bob Huggins also continues pursuit of his 900th career win late Friday.

No matter what happens, Spradlin believes this season can lead to bigger things for his program. By keeping in-state players such as Baker and junior guard DeVon Cooper and attracting promising players such as Broome and transfers, Morehead State finally has the breakout season Spradlin envisioned.

“When I got the job four years ago,” he said, “I told our administration it was going to take some time because I was going to be very committed to doing it a certain way that we were going to have good balance.

“We trust our own evaluations, obviously, and it’s done well for us.”

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