For the first time since 2011, Morehead State men’s basketball won the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament. That year, the No. 13 Eagles knocked off a No. 4-seeded Louisville Cardinals squad to pull off one of the bigger upsets in that tournament.
10 years later, Morehead State returns to March Madness in another attempt to pull off a Cinderella run.
In 2021, they are well-equipped to make the run.
The one eye-popping aspect of this year’s edition of Morehead State basketball is their incredibly stout defense. The Eagles stand inside the top 30 in team defense, only allowing 63.4 points per game. They were in a conference that had two teams finish in the top 16 in PPG (Belmont – 81.3, Eastern Kentucky – 81.8). In three games against EKU, Morehead only allowed 71 and 62 points in a 1-1 split series during the regular season. They played in the OVC semifinals where Morehead only 64 points to them. While they gave up close to Belmont’s average, Morehead State defeated the Bruins twice in three games, including the OVC title game in which they won 86-71.
Four teams in the conference were in the top 100 in the nation for scoring (Murray State – 61st, Austin Peay – 96th). Morehead State went 3-0 combined against both teams.
A forgotten art in basketball these days is rebounding — not for Morehead State, however. The team was 57th of 340 teams in the nation in rebounding, grabbing 27.2 per game. This doesn’t happen without a lack of effort. In the screenshots below from their conference title game against Belmont, you can witness three to four players in the paint looking to secure the rebound and prevent second-chance opportunities for their opponents.
Not only does their lock-down rebounding prevent opponents from second-chance points, but they fluster opposing offenses with a gritty and speedy defense that can guard from point A to point B with fluidity.
It starts as soon as Belmont brings the ball up-court. Senior forward James Baker stands just in front of the 3-point line to eliminate a possible option for Belmont junior guard Grayson Murphy to create a shot opportunity. Murphy has only two choices to pass or to drive to the basket. As Murphy picks up his dribble to pass the ball, he’s cut off by junior forward LJ Murphy and has to make an errant pass to Caleb Hollander.
What I love so much about this sequence is the urgency of Murphy to get back to his assignment, Evan Brauns. This eliminates the post from the possession and Belmont is stuck with either taking a 3-pointer or a guard driving to the basket. The Bruins certainly looked for a 3-pointer with quality ball movement, but the quick closeout from Devon Cooper shuts that down. Instead, Murphy chooses to drive to the basket for a layup and is ultimately stuffed by Baker after his great closeout.
A defense that has great help and communication will always prevail and the Eagles certainly have that on lock after being throttled by some power-conference schools in Kentucky and Ohio State early in the season.
The Baker block is a common sight for Morehead State as the team averages five per game and sits 13th in the nation in sending basketballs into the stands.
The team’s defense is also 30th in the nation in opponent field-goal percentage (40.4%), which is better than the best scoring defense in the nation that Loyola-Chicago possesses. This is the powerhouse defense in college basketball, but it doesn’t come without a flaw and that is their fouling. They sit 220th in the nation for that category, which does bring some discipline issues. Especially with a team like West Virginia in their first-round matchup, Morehead State cannot afford to get into foul trouble if they plan on pulling off the upset.
With their elite defensive prowess, Morehead State is not a high-octane offense. They only averaged 68.8 PPG (237th out of 340 teams) and shot 35% from beyond the arc on 562 attempts, which was 107th in the nation (not terrible, but not great).
They also are prone to the turnover as they have an assist-turnover ratio of 0.83 (279th of 340 teams). However, what makes Morehead State an efficient offensive team is their patience and finding the highest-quality shot on a given possession. This is a team that will grind out a defense by moving the ball and driving to the basket to create those efficient looks. They won’t run in transition and shoot a three or move the ball once and have the next guy with the ball shoot. They will use over half of the shot clock in order to find good shots and grind out possessions.
This netted them the 65th-highest field-goal percentage in college basketball at a 46.1% shooting clip.
Going back to the Belmont game, let’s look at a possession in transition off a great defensive effort.
This is the definition of using your defense as your best offense, and vice versa. While Belmont still had the numbers in transition, Morehead State was able to run out with a pace to have any defense in fight or flight mode.
Skylear Potter hits his teammate Cooper on a cross-court pass. Instead of taking a quick 3-point attempt, Cooper sees an open lane to the basket and drives without hesitation for an easy bucket.
The team immediately gets back on defense and Cooper recovers after getting off the floor and even attempts a steal to make Belmont’s time on offense as pressure-filled as possible. Morehead State continues to show that in-your-face team defense, which creates a cross-court pass that many defenses would just let go — not this team. KJ Hunt makes a great read on the ball and gets his hand on it to force a loose ball that goes out of bounds and winds up back in the hands of the Eagles.
Outside of the fouls, the one glaring problem is their suspect free-throw shooting that ranks in the bottom 100 of the nation (68.2%). If they attack the basket and draw a good number of fouls, those free throws have to translate to points.
Not only does Morehead State fill that stat sheet with impressive numbers, but the overall stature of the team is quite remarkable. 12 of the 14 players on the roster stand over 6’3″, which may not sound impressive at first, but this includes their starting guards, who are lanky and make themselves appear bigger when they do close out on defense and get in their opponents’ faces. There is also the freshman in Johni Broome who stands at 6’10” and 235 pounds. He’s put up stout numbers as he leads the team in PPG (13.9), RPG (9.0) and BPG (1.8).
I have high hopes for this Morehead State team. They will not be an easy out in the first round and are riding a lot of momentum from an impressive conference-title run. They do the small stuff very well that leads to big results. As long as they are disciplined heading into the NCAA Tournament, they are a scary matchup for any of the other 67 teams. If the slipper were to fit for any potential Cinderella, it is the Morehead State Eagles.