Kentucky wasn’t among the 68 teams invited to the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday. Louisville was one of the first four teams out and will be the first replacement team if one of the invitees drops out because of COVID-19 protocols.
Only one team from the Bluegrass — Morehead State — will be part of the Big Dance this season and the Eagles have a connection to the Wildcats. Morehead State coach Preston Spradlin served five seasons at Kentucky where he worked as a graduate assistant and later as director of operations under Wildcats coach John Calipari.
The Eagles are soaring and carry a seven-game winning streak into the Big Dance. Morehead edged Eastern Kentucky 71-68 in the Ohio Valley Conference semifinals and rolled past regular-season league champion Belmont in the OVC finals by double digits. The Eagles not only easily defeated the Bruins in the tournament finale but beat Belmont 89-82 in overtime the week prior, giving Preston’s squad a boost of confidence going into the postseason.
Before he became interim and later head coach at Morehead, Spradlin dissected game film, was the point man when it came to running Calipari’s camps, both at home and throughout the state, and did so with a calm and collected demeanor.
“(He) was involved in all of our meetings, our staff meetings, video, really bright basketball guy,” Calipari said. “(He was) really a level-headed.”
As a member of Calipari’s staff, Spradlin also played a role in the development of Kentucky’s players on the court. He was often called on to guard the Wildcats behind the scenes because of his shooting skills
“I put him in practice because he could still play,” Calipari recalled. “I mean, he was a really good shooter.”
Dominic Lombardi, who also served as an assistant video coordinator with Spradlin while both were at Kentucky, is in his third season as an assistant coach with the Eagles. Last week during a phone conversation with Calipari, Spradlin credited Lombardi for having a role in the Eagles’ success this season.
“He said, ‘coach, Dom has done unbelievable work, he has been just an absolute giant,'” Calipari said. “And that’s what he’s about. I mean, pushing the guys around him, not worrying about himself. I told him (that), he said, ‘My team was tough, coach. They were tough.’”
The Eagles will take on No. 3 seed West Virginia in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament Friday in Indianapolis. Morehead (23-7) is the No. 14 seed in the Midwest Region. Spradlin’s squad is on a roll and Calipari said teams such as the Eagles will be no easy match for lower-seeded teams to open the Big Dance.
“I told him you should go into this thing (to win it),” Calipari said. “Look, it doesn’t matter. No one is going to want to play them. You’ve got some teams out there that are mid-major teams that you’re like saying, ‘Sheesh.’ Who wants to play them?’”
Past history suggests the Eagles are capable of pulling off an upset in the opening round despite the long odds stacked against higher-seeded teams such as the Eagles. In its last appearance in the Big Dance in 2011, the Eagles shocked No. 4 seed Louisville before falling to Richmond in the second round.
The Eagles were the only team Kentucky beat while ranked this season as the Wildcats defeated Morehead 81-45 in the season-opener for both teams last November. It didn’t take long for the Eagles to regroup and find their stride.
Four months after his squad rolled to an easy victory, Calipari will be cheering on the Eagles once the prestigious tournament begins later this week.
“I’m happy that those guys have done what they’ve done, they’re in the NCAA Tournament and they won their league,” he said. “It’s just been good.”