Make no mistake: Sean Woods is saying all the right things. He wants to develop Morehead State “into a Gonzaga of the South,” and says that “Murray State better be worried about Morehead State.”
That’s because right now, he has to say the right things.
If he were the head coach at nearby University of Kentucky, Woods’ alma mater, he would likely be welcomed with open arms.
But while Morehead State may be less than an hour’s drive from the center of college basketball, they worship a different shade of blue. And as with many schools in the Bluegrass State, they’re looking at how to get out of the Big Blue’s large shadow. That makes Woods a hard pill to swallow for some Morehead State fans.
As does the names that didn’t get the Morehead State job. Butler assistant coach Matthew Graves, widely considered one of the top assistant coaches in college basketball, if he doesn’t hold that title outright. And then there’s former Morehead State assistant Wade O’Conner, who is likely preparing to settle in with his former boss at Southern Miss. Both were called “finalists,” and both weren’t chosen.
In some people’s mind, Woods is the consolation prize, having lost out, for whatever reason, on the other two picks.
In the end, you almost can’t blame Morehead State for making the announcement when they did, after 5 p.m. on a Friday, an time that would prove to leave many fans in the dark until right up until Woods’ press conference on Monday afternoon.
But none of that really matter. Winning tends to cure most ills, and if Woods can deliver on his lofty expectations, many fans will likely forget why they didn’t want him in the first place.
But is coach number 13 going to be a lucky number for Morehead State? Here’s why he can (and can’t) deliver Morehead State to the mid-major promised land.
Woods has the resume
He didn’t land at Morehead State by accident. Woods is coming off a NCAA Tournament appearance at Mississippi Valley State, the school’s first since an embarrassing 70-29 loss in 2008. The Delta Devils fell in a much closer game in the tournament’s first round, 59-58 against Western Kentucky. It was also a step up from 13-19 the year before, and 9-23 in his first season.
His resume as a head coach might not be that deep, but it’s hard to doubt his credentials as a player, and with that his knowledge of the game. Woods was part of the “Unforgettables” at Kentucky, the infamous team that got beat on the Christian Laettner shot that UPS made the subject of so many commercials this past tournament. Woods scored 21 in that game, including the bucket that led up to that show.
Woods didn’t have an NBA career, but did run what was considered by many to be a popular basketball camp, where he helped develop players making their way into the league. After that, he spent time on the staff of TCU, where his son would play, as well as Texas A&M Corpus Christi, and High Point
The Bluegrass Connection
Morehead State, as with many schools in the OVC, isn’t in the largest city. It’s not just outside the largest city, and I doubt too many would argue with you if you phrased it’s location “as the middle of nowhere.” Much like the rest of the conference, it adds an element of difficulty to recruiting that many schools don’t have to face.
Which is why Woods’ Kentucky roots could prove incredibly vital. With his old head coach just a few hours away in Louisville, and likely still a few connections in Lexington, Woods will likely have a head start on connecting with area coaches, and finding talent close to home.
Not to mention, those connections could help Woods play one, or both names next season, something he’s already hinted might be on the schedule. It you’re looking to be the best, playing against the best can’t hurt.
A team on the verge?
Many of us…alright, me, thought that Morehead State was going to struggle last season. Then, a key injury just a few games into conference play had me knowing they would struggle.
And then…they didn’t.
Despite losing one of the best players the conference had seen in years, and then losing their top scorer, Morehead State earned the 3-seed in the OVC Tournament. And much of that talent is returning.
Unlike what we see with many coaching changes, Morehead State players haven’t (at least to this point) flown the coup after their head coach left. If the core of this team returns, there’s good reason to believe they’ll be competitive again.
But, this isn’t the SWAC
And let’s be honest…calling out Murray State, a team that just broke all kinds of conference records, and returns a likely NBA-caliber guard in Isaiah Canaan, probably isn’t the smartest move. Even if we are months away from basketball season.
And what of Belmont? The perpetual powerhouse in the Atlantic Sun is moving to the OVC this next season. They’re not exactly pushovers either.
And herein lies some of the problem. The OVC is rarely a “16-seed” league. Sure, they’re not exactly a mid-major powerhouse from top to bottom, but I have a hard time believing his Mississippi Valley State team from last season would have been a NCAA tournament team in the OVC.
Even if Murray State had lost more than one conference game last year.
Morehead State doesn’t have the history (or the money)
Quick, before Kenneth Faried, name the last time the Eagles were an NCAA Tournament team. The answer? 1984.
This recent run by the Eagles has been great, and has helped propel not only the school’s, but also the conference’s image over the past few years. But that was with Faried, and Tyndall at the helm. Both are gone now. So, has the program made significant changes within that time to be an annual contender in a conference that’s getting better by the season?
Even if they have, you have to ask if they have the money to stay there? Sure, money isn’t everything in college basketball, but there’s little doubt that over time, schools and programs with the most money tend to have the most success.
And I don’t see a $3 million practice facility being built in Morehead.
They will always be Kentucky’s (and Louisville’s) little brother
And this matters more to them, because they’re closer than the other power teams in the conference.
And let’s even throw Cincinnati into the mix, and maybe even Tennessee, all with just a few hours of Morehead, Kentucky. That’s a lot of competition for recruits. And a lot of battles Morehead is almost always going to lose.
Geography can often be cruel in college basketball, and few teams in the OVC have more power conference competition within relative driving distance than Morehead State
Except maybe Eastern Kentucky. Who will also be in direct competition for area recruits.
Sure, this is all pure conjecture, and in the end, nothing I say here will have any real effect on Woods’ performance at Morehead State. But if he wins, or if he loses, these factors will some of the many at play.