This summer, Last Word on Basketball looks to profile college basketball teams and their journey through a season played during a pandemic. Our previous installment took a look at Vermont from the America East. You can also check out prior installments, starting with Cleveland State. The next program in our series is Morehead State basketball. The Eagles just finished their fifth season under head man Preston Spradlin.
Spradlin was promoted to the head job after being an assistant with the program prior. He had been slowly building the program up before breaking out in a big way in 2020-21. The Eagles ended up finishing 23-8 and 17-3 in the Ohio Valley Conference. That conference record was good enough for a second-place finish behind league stalwart Belmont. However, Morehead State was the one cutting down the nets and representing the league in the NCAA Tournament in March. Furthermore, the Eagles didn’t face a single pause during the season, a rare feat. I talked to Spradlin about how his team came together for a special year while also avoiding a COVID outbreak.
The Story of the 2020-21 Morehead State Basketball Program
For many, time during the pandemic has felt like a blur. Time seems to run together, dating back to March of 2020. From that point on, everyone had to readjust to the way they did things, and that also rang true in the college basketball landscape. Coach Spradlin and his staff had to figure out where to start as they began to prepare for the 2020-21 season.
“We literally have one goal, and that’s to get better,” Spradlin said. “We were faced with a decision as a staff of, do we want to change our goal or do we want to kind of redirect it? Our players were spread all over the country. Our staff, we were all stuck at home. So, we were very limited as to how much better we could get as a basketball team.”
Even with the lack of a normal off-season, Spradlin and his team took advantage of the time they had in a different way.
“We had a FaceTime schedule that we set up where our players would have to FaceTime a teammate…every day of the week,” he stated. “As a staff, we would divide up the guys and call and have long conversations with three or four guys each day. We’d talk about everything that didn’t relate to basketball.”
Coach said that he even got the players’ families involved, hosting family Zoom calls so parents could ask questions to the coaches, training staff, and administration as the pandemic progressed.
Spradlin also talked about how he and his staff really broke down areas that they wanted to improve in for the upcoming season.
“Each guy on our staff studied a different area of the game we wanted to improve,” stated Coach. “We were really able to lay out a game plan of how we wanted to play going into the season. We felt it was really important to have a roadmap because you just didn’t know how much time you were going to get with your team once you get them back to campus.”
Once players returned for summer workouts, they were divided into pods to minimize contact tracing. Spradlin really felt that the pod system ended up being huge towards his team pushing each other to get better.
“We had guys basically by their position,” he said. “It brought the groups of players together very closely, and it made them a really competitive group. You have guys who are living with one another who are competing for minutes and competing for positions.”
By the time pre-season came, Spradlin and his group soaked up every moment. They knew it could be taken away in an instant.
“Each and every day we focused on getting better,” stated Coach. “You didn’t know when you were going to have to go through a pause, go through a shutdown, go through a time when you wouldn’t have a player available.”
With all the preparation in place, it was time to start the season.
Morehead State basketball scheduled a fairly tough non-conference slate. This was all done in a short span of time with their original non-conference schedule getting flipped upside down. Spradlin made his guys aware that this was going to end up being the status quo in 2020-21.
“It went with the narrative we sold our guys on,” he said. “Control what you can control and be ready to adapt. We got our schedule together…and we did a presentation with our guys. Here’s going to be the schedule. Here’s how it’s going to look. If it changes, it changes, and we’ll make sure you guys are ready to play.”
The Eagles faced Kentucky, Richmond, Ohio State, and Clemson as part of their non-league games. All of them were on the road. While Morehead didn’t come out on top, Spradlin felt like those games were still really important in setting the table for his players.
“Those are uphill battles,” Spradlin said. “I think the big key in those games was…on trying to play to our identity. When you play an Ohio State or a Clemson, it offers up a real opportunity to do that. I think our guys deserve so much credit because they stayed focused on getting better, not worrying about the final score and not allowing the opponent you play to dictate how you play.”
That commitment to improvement paid off when it was time to switch to the Eagles’ remaining OVC schedule. Morehead State basketball ripped off 12 straight wins after Christmas.
“We let our guys go home a couple days for Christmas,” said Spradlin. “At that point…we had played more games than anyone in the country. We really needed that break at Christmas…to kind of recharge mentally and physically.”
Spradlin believes that the combination of a recharge and the ability to continue to work on themselves in practice when they returned is what sparked their run, starting with their first road victory at Murray State in 18 years.
Icing the Cake
Morehead State’s winning streak was ended by Belmont on February 13. The Eagles knew that to reach that next level, they had to overcome a Belmont program that had become the class of the league. Two weeks later, on senior night, Morehead finally got over that hill, topping the Bruins by seven in overtime.
“That one really solidified to us that we belonged and that we had an opportunity to win in Evansville and the conference tournament,” stated Coach. “It gave us the confidence going into the OVC Tournament that, we just beat Belmont, and if we get the opportunity to play them in the championship game, we know that we can win.”
Sure enough, Morehead got that opportunity and made the most of it. However, this time the Eagles made sure they wouldn’t need an extra period to get the job done. The Eagles won their rubber match with the Bruins 86-71, and the game wasn’t even that close for most of it.
“There was a feeling in our locker room and a look in everyone’s eyes that we were going to be ready to play,” Spradlin said of that night. “We came out and we proved it, and it was really fun to watch our guys play with that level of confidence…and play our best basketball.”
A Unique Experience
Morehead State’s reward for their title was a date with West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament. However, the Eagles had plenty of time to both celebrate and prepare before that game.
“It was almost two weeks from our championship game…to where we played in the first round,” Spradlin noted. “You get to enjoy your championship before you have to worry about your next opponent. It [also] gave us the opportunity to work on us as it had coming off Christmas because we didn’t know who we were going to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
Spradlin also discussed the uniqueness of the week leading up to their game with the Mountaineers.
“We didn’t get the chance to have a giant selection show in your arena,” he said. “[The NCAA] took us to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and we got a chance to have a big, private reception…and watch Selection Sunday. The NCAA did a phenomenal job of taking care of us.”
The Eagles entered the bubble after that, going through the protocols set forth. From there, the team had a fairly normal opportunity to practice and prepare. Morehead State fell to West Virginia 84-67, though the game was closer than the final score.
“It made for a fun match-up,” Spradlin said of West Virginia. “We told our guys that, if your season is going to end…you want to go out to a really good opponent. You want to stick together…and the other thing is that you want to play to your identity, and we did.”
Reflecting on Morehead State Basketball
The ride came to an abrupt end, as it does for most teams that qualify for the NCAA Tournament. However, Coach Spradlin was most amazed at the way his guys carried themselves throughout the season.
“I was most proud of our guys for the discipline and sacrifice that they demonstrated all year,” he stated. “They really sacrificed their social lives and took the COVID protocol and the masking and distancing, everything that we asked of them, they took it very seriously.”
It was also not lost on Coach about the fact that they were able to play all of their scheduled games.
“We explained to the guys that we were one of, I think, 30 teams in the country to play every game going into the conference tournament,” Spradlin remarked. “I was most proud that we got to play every game that we were supposed to because that wasn’t what everyone else go to do. Our staff, our administration, our campus, everybody did a great job.”
In talking to Spradlin, that pride was evident throughout our call. Morehead State basketball looks poised to continue their ascension with him at the helm. Look for the Eagles to push for a title once again in 2021-22.