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By RICHARD CHEEKS
Sean Woods is one of us, and always will be one of our own. The Big Blue Nation will be in his corner as he moves up the coaching ranks, a path that has led him to coach the Morehead State Eagles, a mere 60 miles from Lexington and Rupp Arena. On Wednesday night, Sean will bring his current basketball family to celebrate Thanksgiving with his brothers in arms at the University of Kentucky. Welcome home Sean, and we will give Thanks together on Thursday, but on Wednesday evening, we hope you don’t find your chair on the visitor’s bench too comfortable.
After the first three games, the Cats are still struggling to find their team identity, and the absence of Ryan Harrow is making the search more difficult because everyone involved fully expects Ryan’s return will affect that identity in ways that no one can quite anticipate, other than to say it will be a positive impact. Nevertheless, these Cats have grown by leaps and bounds over the course of a mere 9 days. On November 9, the Cats looked like a group of freshmen who had just met, and needed a calm contribution from Jarrod Polson to pull a win from the jaws of defeat against Maryland. Harrow played, but it was evident from his 10 minutes of court time that he probably should not have done so.
Four days later, the Cats moved to the Atlanta stage to meet a veteran and highly ranked Duke team. Following the Maryland show, and with the knowledge that Ryan could not even make the trip to Atlanta, many fans, including this fan, feared a huge defeat, and only hoped for a game that provided an opportunity to win in the final 4 minutes. The former did not occur, even though Duke flirted with the possibility, but these Cats showed great growth, and had the ball down 3 inside the 3 minute mark before losing by 7. The Big Blue Nation is seldom at ease with a lose, and every member would have preferred that the 3 point attempt to tie would have gone in and the Cats could have found the way to win. However, the game showed everyone that the team had grown considerably in 4 days, even without Harrow’s presence, and with the upside that clearly remains for this Kentucky team, we would welcome a rematch with Duke in March.
Three days later, the Cats opened the home season against Morehead as heavy favorites to get back on the winning track. Pomeroy figured the game as a 28 point Kentucky win, as did my NGE analysis. The Vegas boys refused to put the game on the line. I had hope that Kentucky’s growth would be sufficient since Duke to at least match the model projected margin after back to back games that fell short of the model by about 10 to 15 points. Again, Ryan could not go, and the Cats showed a degree of growth that few if anyone expected, nearly doubling the projected 28 point margin and winning by 52 points.
Coach Calipari knows how to coach, and the growth we are witnessing with this team is proof positive of that fact. Pomeroy started the year with the Cats in his #1 position. 9 days, and 3 games later, the shaky start dropped them to #2, and this team’s potential remains light years above its current game performance levels. That is why the Big Blue Nation can give Thanks on Thursday for April’s National Championship and for the current state of the Kentucky Basketball Program. Sean Woods’ is a member of the family, and I am confident that he will share in giving those Thanks on Thursday too.
However, make no mistake, Sean Woods’ Eagles will come into Rupp Arena on Wednesday night determined to make a good showing, and get out of Rupp with a win of their own if possible. So, until Thursday morning, Sean must be regarded as any enemy that walks into the Cats’ domain.
Last year, Morehead finished the season 18-15, rated #189 losing to Tennessee State in the second round of the Ohio Valley Tournament against a schedule rated as the 241st toughest in D1 basketball. This year, Morehead has opened like Kentucky with two wins and one loss, and one of the two wins came at the expense of Alice Lloyd College. Morehead defeated future UK opponent Long Island by 3 points in Brooklyn, and lost at Maryland by 22 points. In their first two D1 games, Morehead has played at an average pace of about 71 possession, scoring 61.0 ppg (0.853 ppp) while allowing 70.5 ppg (0.993ppp) against an early schedule rated as the 71st toughest (0.7254). Morehead’s turnover rate has been 27.3% while forcing opponents to turn the b all over on 25.4% of the possessions. Morehead’s rebounding rates have been 57.5% on the defensive glass and 40.3% on the offensive glass.
Kentucky, by comparison, the Cats have played the 117th toughest early schedule (0.6182), and the Cats have played at an average pace of about 69 possessions per game, producing 80.3ppg (1.161 ppp) and allowing 64.3 ppg (0.932 ppp). The Cats’ turnover rate has been 16.9% while they have forced opponent turnovers only 22.7% of possessions. On the boards, the Cats have gotten 60.3% of the rebounds on the defensive end and 30.5% of the rebounds at the offensive end.
Based on this distribution, the analysis tips in favor of the Cats by 30 points, 84-54 in a game played with about 70 possessions. Pomeroy figures the Game in Kentucky’s favor by 22 points, 74-52 at a pace of 62 possessions.. In my view, a Kentucky win by 25 points or more will bode well, and a win by less than 15 points will signal a setback in the development of this team.
By LARRY VAUGHT
The Cats have been without sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow the last two games and there has been no update on his status for Wednesday other than information released Friday that he was “day to day” before he missed that game with an unknown illness. Morehead State coach Sean Woods thinks not having Harrow has changed UK’s mentality.
“I think now they become instead of one of the top teams to beat, they are now one of the biggest underdogs in the country. They are like a wounded dog. That’s even more scary because you do not know where they will hit you,” Woods, a former point guard, said.
He has been impressed with UK freshman Archie Goodwin, who has primarily played the point with Harrow out.
“He is relentless. He is not scared to make mistakes,” Woods said. “I would rather try to calm a guy down than speed him up. Cal has that luxury. I think as the season goes on he will become one of the most dynamic players in the country.”
Kentucky freshman forward Alex Poythress is the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week after averaging 21 points and 6.5 rebounds in games against Duke and Lafayette. He had 20 points against Duke and 22 against Lafayette to become the first UK freshman since Brandon Knight to have consecutive 20-point efforts.
Former UK All-American Kyle Macy compared him to former Wildcat Jamal Mashburn on FoxSports South last week. Woods thought that might have been a bit brash.
“Jamal Mashburn. Wow. I don’t know about that one,” Woods said. “Jamal was pretty daggone good and could do more things than Poythress can. I think Poythress is more of a banger trying to be skilled. I don’t see him shooting 3’s a lot in his career. Jamal could shoot 3’s. I think he is very, very good. Don’t get me wrong. But a Jamal Mashburn, that’s going too far. Jamal Mashburn might be the most talented player ever to wear the Big Blue all around.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Since he played for Rick Pitino at Kentucky, Sean Woods is a big believer in pressure basketball and that’s what he’ll have Morehead doing against No. 8 Kentucky Wednesday.
“I haven’t seen them really be pressured yet, so we will see how they handle ours,” said Woods. “I am just a coach that doesn’t like people to be comfortable. I do not like people to run their sets. I am going to put you in a situation where you better have better basketball players and be deep and able to take the pressure for 40 minutes or I will have a chance. I am going to be high octane for 40 minutes. If you have better players than I do, then you have a greater chance of winning. If you don’t, then I do.”
That philosophy didn’t work well at Maryland Nov. 12 when the Terps, who opened the season with a loss to UK, beat Morehead 67-45. Woods said his team turned the ball over too much that game.
“I think defensively we will be okay with the pressure we will apply (on UK). I think our size will come into play. They may be taller, but they are not stronger or wider than us,” Woods said.
The coach said his team had to be physical to compete against UK (2-1).
“We are not jumping as high. I think we can run just as fast. We have to use our strength. We have some older, tougher guys. We are going to see what happens,” Woods said. “We are going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at them.
“If they are the team everybody thinks they are, they will have success against us. If they are still trying to figure it out, then this will be another test for Cal (John Calipari) as far as us being more physical to get them ready for the SEC. We are going to do whatever we can (to win).”
Woods’ fast pace didn’t work when he brought Mississippi Valley State to play at Rupp Arena, but he says that team did not have the depth to match a much more talented Kentucky. Now he has more depth.
“One thing about my teams, we are going to give everything we have,” Woods said. “The only way to beat us is to have more players. I am deeper and more talented (than at Mississippi Valley State). We are going to play our style and come at you. If they are playing young and turning the ball over against our pressure, then we have a chance.
“Our guys are willing and ready to seize the moment. They felt like they could have played much better against Maryland. Now our confidence is better and I think we will pay much better against Kentucky than we played against Maryland. What the outcome will be, I don’t know yet.”
Morehead State forced 29 turnovers in an 88-74 win over Lafayette, the same team UK beat 101-49 two days earlier, but also had 20 turnovers of it own.
“We have to do a better job of after we turn people over of not turning the ball back over,” Woods said. “We did a good job creating chaos, but we have to do a better job capitalizing after turning them over.”
Woods said Kentucky “is getting better and better by the day” and that coach John Calipari’s team do not continue to make the same mistakes over and over.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Sean Woods was one of The Unforgettables at Kentucky and had 21 points — and many thought the game-winning goal — in that infamous 1992 NCAA Tournament loss to Duke when Christian Laettner hit a last-second goal to beat UK.
But during a teleconference Monday leading into Morehead’s game at Kentucky Wednesday night, the first-year Morehead made some comments that he might wish were a bit more forgettable. He was asked about UK freshman Willie Cauley-Stein of Kansas saying before the UK-Duke game that he did not know Laettner.
“You know what, that doesn’t surprise me because kids nowadays are different. When I was growing up I never once saw Wilt Chamberlin play, but I could tell you everything about him. Earl Monroe was way before my time, but I could tell you a lot about him,” said Woods, an Indiana native. “Kids nowadays play too many video games. I’m just being honest with you. They don’t get it. They play basketball, but they don’t know what basketball is.
“They are very fortunate. We live in a microwave society now, and it’s a shame that kids don’t know the history. I walked into a deal the other day, with that telethon at WKYT (to raise money for Hurricane Sandy victims) — I didn’t like the vibe. I’m just going to be honest with you. With those guys — it’s just totally different now. And it’s not anyone’s fault, it just the way society is now.
“I bet you any type of money, beside the kids that are from the Kentucky that are on UK’s team, couldn’t tell you anything about one player in the history of Kentucky basketball. When I walked through that door, I knew about every player, almost everything history-wise about Kentucky basketball, but these kids don’t. It’s a shame, but that’s just how society is.”
Bad vibe from the UK players helping answer telephones to take calls to donate to charity from an event that ended up raising about $1 million? What did he not like to get such a bad vibe?
“They didn’t seem like Kentucky basketball players to me … and I’ll leave it at that,” Woods said.
Then he didn’t leave it at that.
“I’m a Kentucky basketball player through and through, and there is just a certain aura about you. Like I told you before, these kids these days are just so different. When I was coming up, we were humble. I think because of the success Cal has created, which is not a bad thing — it is a great thing. It just let’s you know where Kentucky basketball is right now,” Woods, who led Mississippi Valley State to last year’s NCAA Tournament, said.
“I am just one of those kids that is a blue-blooded Kentucky guy at heart. There’s just a certain way and a certain look that Kentucky basketball players have, and not have such a sense of entitlement. I think today it is still an honor to wear that uniform. Even though they are coming in one-and-done, what Cal’s created — it’s the only university that it’s happened on a consistent basis. North Carolina’s not doing that all the time, Kansas isn’t doing that all the time and Kentucky is. That’s what sets Kentucky apart from everyone else in the United States.
“I think these kids should be more appreciative coming through here wearing that uniform, knowing that six months that you are going to be an instant millionaire. But still, you went through there and it helped you become who you are during those six, seven or eight months.”
About two hours after the teleconference, Woods posted several messages on Twitter about his comments saying he did not mean to “offend or insult” players or coach John Calipari.
“Simply an observation of today’s youth everywhere. I greatly admire Coach Cal and what he has done for the University of Kentucky and college basketball,” Woods said in his tweets. “I will always be proud to have worn a Kentucky Wildcat uniform and to be the head coach at Morehead State University.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Here is more of my conversation with new Morehead State coach Sean Woods, who I think will do a terrific job with the Eagles.
Question: Will it be harder to win at Morehead in the Ohio Valley Conference than it was at Mississippi Valley State?
Woods: â€œIn every conference it is hard to win no matter where you are at. Just a different level, different beat, different type of players, different coaches. Conference play is always tough. I could go to the SEC and come back down to the Sun Belt and it would still be tough in conference play. Nothing changes. It’s hard to go unbeaten in any conference.
“Morehead has some great pieces coming back. Donnie left some players. I have got to solidify the guys he had recruited and let them know it is okay to still play for me. I have to sell them all over. But the kids that are left and the way they play fits real well with the way I play. I like that.”
Question: How much would you have liked a chance to play UKâ€ˆin the NCAA last year?
Woods: “I would have loved it. I would have loved beating Western. That burns my belly more than the opportunity to play Kentucky that we didn’t get because we lost. We were right there. I wouldn’t change a thing. Those kids played their hearts out all year long. To win 19 of 21 games like we did at the end was remarkable with those kids. For them to have one bad three-minute stretch in the year, come on. What more could I have asked? Nothing against those guys. We overachieved, did something no one at our school had ever did and raised bar. They left their legacy.”
Question: Did you learn things from that loss that made you a better coach?
Woods: “It has already helped me. First, it was that team and those kids first time on that stage. Playing in front of the president of the United States. How many teams get to do that? Those kids outplayed Western Kentucky for 36 minutes in front of the whole world. To have a bad stretch, partially due to fatigue, was not what we wanted, but I was proud of my guys. No one every thought we would reach that pinnacle.”
Question: Has the amount of media attention you have received now and every time you have been back to Kentucky surprised you?
Woods: “It has been really good for me and the program. I have not been back in Kentucky for so long. It has just reminded me how passionate the commonwealth of Kentucky is about basketball and guys that play at Kentucky. I am humbled by all of this. It is a great opportunity for me to come back and coach at Morehead and do my very best. There is even more pride for me being back in the state of Kentucky.”
Question: Since you played high school basketball in Indiana, why do you keep refering to â€œcoming homeâ€ when talking about Morehead?
Woods: “I lived here. My mom is from Lexington. My roots are here. Since I put on the blue and white Iâ€ˆhave considered myself a Kentuckian. We all go off and then come back to Kentucky. We all consider Kentucky home. All who play here feel that way. My wife is from Lexington. My kids were born here. I am all about Kentucky and glad to be back home.”