1. Injured Star
The best returning player for Morehead State this season was supposed to be sophomore Tyzhaun Claude. The 6’8″-240 pound forward started 19 games last year as a true freshman. Claude was third on the team in scoring last season with 9.5 points per game and led the team in rebounding at 6.4 per contest. While not much of an outside threat yet, Claude was a fantastic paint presence, shooting nearly 60% and only fouling two times a game on the defensive end.
Unfortunately for Morehead State and the Goldsboro, North Carolina native, he tore his ACL in practice on November 11th and will be sidelined for the season. What should’ve been a breakout season for Claude was abruptly ended before it even began. Claude seems to be in as good of spirits as possible given the situation, as he’s tweeted a few times about being back to full strength next year.
2. Who’s Back?
With Tyzhaun Claude out for the year, the door is now opened for quite a few individuals to step up and be the statistical leaders this season for the Eagles. Morehead State is set to start four players who have all started at various times in their collegiate career, alongside one incoming transfer. Most notable is senior forward James Baker, Jr., who averaged 9.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks last season. Baker has started 53 games over the last three seasons as the most experienced player on the roster. In addition to Baker, Ta’lon Cooper returns after starting seven games last year and LJ Bryan returns after starting 13 games last year.
The two remaining starting spots will most likely be filled by DeVon Cooper and KJ Hunt Jr. Cooper only appeared in five games last season before an injury forced him out for the rest of the year. Prior to last year, Cooper started all 33 games his sophomore year, averaging 8.8 points and 3.4 rebounds, while hitting 36% of his threes. Hunt also sat out all of last year, but his situation was due to transfer rules rather than injury. In 2018-19, Hunt played at McNeese State, where he scored 6.9 points and assisted a team-leading 2.8 times per game.
3. Size Matters
Another facet of the game that takes a hit with the injury to Tyzhaun Claude–outside of experience and the obvious stat sheet factors–is the overall size of the roster for Morehead State. A starting lineup that now stands at 6’3″, 6’4″, 6’4″, 6’6″, and 6’9″ leaves a major size advantage to the Cats at four of the five positions. As we’ve heard all offseason, this Kentucky team is tall and long, so a size advantage should be evident for most of the year, but is even more noticeable against a team with the make up of Morehead State.
When you look down the roster at who is left on the bench for the Eagles, there is only one player above 6’7″ remaining outside the starting lineup and that is true freshman Johni Broome. Broome stands at 6’10” and 235 pounds, so his size definitely matches up, but it will be his first collegiate game, so it is still to be determined how much the Morehead staff will rely on him. Expect a lot of mismatches tonight on both ends. Kentucky should be able to dominate the glass and get paint touches when they want, while Morehead may pull a page out of Evansville’s book from last year, pulling Kentucky’s bigs away from the basket while being forced to defend smaller players off the dribble.
4. Familiar Face on the Sideline
Starting his fourth full season as the Head Coach of the Morehead State Eagles tonight is Preston Spradlin. If that name sounds familiar to you, it may be because Spradlin actually used to be a part of the staff at Kentucky under John Calipari. From 2009-2014 Spradlin held a few different titles for the Wildcats, including graduate assistant, assistant director of operations, and director of the John Calipari Basketball Camps and Clinics, to go along with spearheading the first-ever John Calipari Basketball Fantasy Experience.
Spradlin also helped with the Dominican Republic National Team when John Calipari was the head coach early in his Kentucky tenure. After a few years as an assistant for Morehead, Spradlin was named the interim head coach during the 2016-17 season. Just prior to being named interim head coach, he was named to the National Basketball Coaches Association (NABC) 2016 Under Armour 30-Under-30-Team, similar to current Kentucky assistant, Joel Justus, being named one of the “top 40 under 40” earlier this year. Tonight will be Spradlin’s second time returning to Rupp as an opposing head coach since leaving the program in 2014.
5. 12th All-Time Meeting
Tonight’s game in Rupp Arena will be the 12th time that the Wildcats and Eagles have faced off, and the fourth time in the John Calipari era. The first-ever meeting between the two schools came back in 1961 in Louisville in the regional semifinal of the NCAA Tournament, which equates to the Sweet 16, but was the first round back then. After a 30 year lay-0ff, the Cats and Eagles met again in Louisville for their first-ever regular-season game in 1991. Since then, Morehead has traveled to Lexington to face Kentucky relatively frequently, with the most recent being an exhibition game in 2017.
Of the first eleven games between the two Kentucky schools, the Cats have taken all eleven. An average margin of victory for UK has been 28 points throughout the series. The spread for tonight’s game opened at 23.5 in the Cats’ favor, which is a lofty number for the first game of the season. Coach Cal has pumped the brakes a bit this week about the hype surrounding his team, so we’ll see if a slow start is in store as we’ve seen in seasons past.
Go Cats. Beat Eagles.