Demonte Harper is Morehead State's quiet man.
Donnie Tyndall says as he read newspaper articles this winter in which John Calipari pleaded with Darius Miller to be more assertive in his play, the Morehead State University coach felt a kinship with his Kentucky counterpart.
It's the same motivational talk the MSU head man has had — multiple times — with his talented senior guard, Harper.
Says Tyndall: "Demonte is a phenomenal kid, a classy, classy kid. But he's so laid-back that it spills over into his play. All year, I've pleaded with him to be aggressive, stay aggressive."
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Having single-handedly made rebounding and defense cool, Morehead big man Kenneth Faried is reaping a wave of deserved accolades this season. Yet if you want an indicator of whether Southwest Region No. 13 seed Morehead State (24-9) has a viable chance to upset No. 4 Louisville on Thursday in the NCAA Tournament, watch how Harper is playing.
If the 6-foot-4 guard performs anywhere close to the level at which he played in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, MSU will be a tough out.
Playing for the final time as a collegian in his hometown, the Nashville product averaged 26 points, 8.5 rebounds and five assists in two games to lead the Eagles past Austin Peay and Tennessee Tech. For his performance, Harper was named OVC Tournament MVP.
"Words can't explain how good that whole weekend felt," Harper said.
Conversely, Harper's play was directly tied into the low point of the Morehead season, too.
In an ugly 47-40 January loss at Eastern Illinois, Harper missed all but three of 16 shots and had five turnovers. Coming home to face Eastern Kentucky, Harper went 4-for-18 from the floor in a 59-49 defeat to the Eagles' archrivals.
After the latter effort, Tyndall called in the guard for another motivational plea.
Just as Calipari has challenged UK's Miller to break through a self-imposed passivity and be the player his talent level suggests he can, the Morehead coach told Harper he had the skills to be the best guard in the OVC but wasn't accepting the responsibility that came with his ability.
"I told Demonte, 'You are playing with a (projected) first-round draft pick (Faried), yet you are getting more shots,'" Tyndall says. "I said, 'If the coach is letting that happen, can't you see how much faith I have in you?' "
Says Harper: "He told me to be aggressive and stay aggressive. That I couldn't have parts in games where I sort of got laid-back and wasn't attacking."
Having to prove himself as a basketball player is nothing new for Harper.
Growing up, his passion was football. "Going into middle school, he didn't want to play basketball," Jackie Harper says of her son. "I played basketball in high school. I told him, 'Son, it's in your family blood. You have to play basketball.' "
Eventually, Demonte came around on hoops. At Whites Creek High School, he had a solid career yet was not a lavishly wooed college prospect.
"We liked him (as a prospect), we didn't love him," Tyndall said of Morehead's interest.
The result was Harper, whose mother and step-father are both educators, agreed to pay his way at MSU his first year with the promise of a scholarship his final three seasons.
Part of the issue for recruiters was that Harper was exceedingly thin when he graduated from high school. The guard weighed 170 pounds as an MSU freshman — which is also what he says he was bench pressing. Four years later, Harper weighs a sold 195 "and I bench 285," he said.
By the end of his freshman year, Harper established himself as Morehead's sixth man. The last three years, he's been a starter.
His scoring averages have risen every year as a starter, from 10.6 points as a sophomore to 11.9 to 16.0 this season, when he was named first-team All-OVC.
Together, he and Faried have now led Morehead State to two NCAA Tournament appearances in three years, one of the best eras in the school's men's basketball history.
The two have also become best friends. In a sense, the roommates are an example of opposites being pulled together.
Faried's personality is somewhat like his play: ebullient and energetic. Harper, in person and sometimes in games, is low key.
"Kenneth thinks he's better than Dwight Howard right now," Tyndall says. "Demonte is so naturally reserved, you have to stay on him and remind him to stay on the attack."
If Morehead's quiet man is on the attack Thursday, things could be interesting for Rick Pitino & Co.