The phrase “ball is life” takes a new meaning in the state of Kentucky. In Kentucky, the men’s basketball Wildcats ARE life to the majority of Kentuckians and are a statewide obsession. Kentucky may lack a professional basketball team, but the Wildcats are treated like one. The players – and head coach John Calipari – are treated like royalty. UK basketball is priced like a professional team with elevated ticket prices for seats that are difficult to get and even then, the seats are in the crowded upper deck of Rupp Arena on hard wooden bleachers which force you to be crammed uncomfortably close to another UK fan desperate to see their team. Personally, I’m not a UK fan – I’m a Louisville fan, which living 20 minutes from Rupp Arena may seem like blasphemy to many Kentucky residents, but my 8 year-old son is a basketball fan and cheers for UK. Still, I’d love to take him to a UK game so he can experience Rupp Arena, which basketball fans should experience, and that he can be around other UK fans, but the cost and inconvenience has deterred me to this point. Last year, I began looking for alternatives and came across my alma mater, Eastern Kentucky University, hosting a maroon-white scrimmage for free and decided to take my son and my daughter to it.
We stumbled across the best kept basketball secret in Kentucky.
Last year, the Colonels were welcoming in new head coach Dan McHale. McHale served as a student manager at UK from 1997-2001 during Tubby Smith’s tenure and then served at Louisville under Rick Pitino as a staff assistant. He also served at Iona College and the University of Minnesota (with Richard Pitino) as an assistant before being hired by EKU. Watching the Colonels, it was easy to see that McHale was a Pitino disciple: The Colonels press, shoot lots of threes, and play with intensity on the defensive end. It’s an exciting brand of basketball that most Kentuckians are missing out on.
Under McHale’s coaching, then-freshmen Nick Mayo was voted OVC Freshmen of the Year and made first-team All-OVC last season. Mayo is back this season and Coach McHale has brought in lots of talent to surround him. Ranging from experienced seniors like Isaac McGlone and Jaylen Babb-Harrison – who contribute much needed experience and leadership along with their sharp-shooting skills – to incoming freshmen sensation Asante Gist and community college transfer Zach Charles, who’s been crucial in cleaning up the glass and protecting the rim. This team is exciting and tough.
And it all starts with Coach McHale. As a Chicago Bulls fan,
I loved the intensity Tom Thibodeau brought to the team and his toughness. The first time I saw Coach Dan McHale on the court, it felt familiar. He brings that same passion and that same intensity, but is also a teacher of the game. In the picture to the top right, you’ll see Coach McHale taking a minute and pulling freshmen guard, Asante Gist, aside for a chat during the Maroon-White Scrimmage. If you watch Coach McHale closely, you’ll see this happen several times a game. He genuinely cares about his players and he is taking the time to instruct them even in-game.
Then there’s McBrayer Arena. If you love old arenas, McBrayer is the place for you. While EKU has made attempts to modernize it to some degree, they’ve left the nuances that make it special intact. If you look up in McBrayer Arena, you’ll see a wooden ceiling which helps the acoustics in the arena. It can get loud and I’d imagine it’s distracting for opposing teams. It seems like the Colonels thrive off of it, though, and in a recent game against UNC-Wilmington (considered to be one of the best mid-majors in the country), the Colonels relied on that noise and that crowd to gain momentum and force the game into overtime. Unfortunately, the came up short, but they were down double-digits for the majority of the game. It was that one wave of momentum that really propelled them and they nearly stole a victory because of the atmosphere in McBrayer Arena. If you come to McBrayer Arena, you’ll notice the loudness of the pep band (and their constant heckling), you’ll likely see the EKU Superfan sitting front row or shaking a giant cardboard cut-out of her face at the opposition.
It’s these little things that make Colonel basketball special and somehow, it’s remained a secret treasure in Central Kentucky. If you’re a basketball fan and you’re having trouble getting into Rupp Arena or can’t afford it, I encourage you to give EKU a try. You can see most of their games on the OVC Digital Network for free or watch them compete in the Cancun Challenge today on YouTube. I promise you that you won’t be disappointed.
“But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith…” – Philippians 3:7-9