When Eastern Kentucky University released its 2019-20 men’s basketball schedule last week, it contained something that not one hoops fan in the commonwealth had ever seen before:
Nov. 8 at Kentucky; Nov. 15 vs. Western Kentucky; Dec. 8 at Northern Kentucky; Dec. 14 at Louisville; Feb. 13 at Morehead State; Feb. 27 at Murray State; Feb. 29 vs. Morehead State.
In the coming season, Coach A.W. Hamilton’s Colonels will play every other NCAA Division I team in the commonwealth. As best as I can tell, EKU in 2019-20 will be the first in-state men’s basketball team ever to play all the other in-state D-I schools in the same regular season.
“This is exciting for us,” Hamilton said Friday. “We didn’t know if we’d be able to pull it off. But it’s so important for us to build our brand of basketball around the state.”
In an era before NKU joined Division I, there were two prior times when an in-state school ended up playing all of the commonwealth’s other D-I teams with help from the NCAA Tournament.
In 1960-61, Morehead State played Ohio Valley Conference foes Eastern Kentucky (twice), Murray State (three times) and Western Kentucky (which was then in the OVC, twice) a combined seven times during the regular season, then defeated Eastern and Western in an OVC playoff to determine the league title.
That sent Coach Bobby Laughlin’s Eagles into the NCAA Tournament. After defeating Xavier in the first round, Morehead State lost to Kentucky in the Mideast Region semifinals, then fell to Louisville in a consolation game.
In 2004-05, EKU played non-league games against Western Kentucky (which had long since left the OVC) and Louisville, then faced OVC foes Murray State and Morehead State twice each.
After Coach Travis Ford’s Colonels won the OVC Tournament, they lost a NCAA Tournament round of 64 meeting with Kentucky.
For 2019-20, Hamilton said the idea of Eastern Kentucky playing all the other in-state D-I teams was hatched during a meeting he had with EKU Athletics Director Steve Lochmueller and senior associate AD James Downer.
At the time, the Colonels brain trust knew that, in addition to annual league contests with Morehead State and Murray State, they were also contracted to play non-conference foes WKU and NKU this coming season.
That meant if games with UK and U of L could be added, Eastern could create a basketball “Tour de Kentucky.” Of course, getting dates on the schedules of the high-profile teams coached by John Calipari and Chris Mack, respectively, cannot be taken for granted.
“We are fortunate because Coach Cal is so easy to work with, he and his staff,” Hamilton said of Kentucky. “They were willing to do this for us.”
As for U of L, Hamilton has an “in” with Mack. In 2000-01, when Hamilton played his first season of college basketball at Wake Forest, Mack was an assistant under Skip Prosser.
“I’ve got a great relationship with Coach Mack,” Hamilton said. “So I called him and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to play this game. Will you help us?’ And he was willing to do that.”
EKU has lost star big man Nick Mayo to graduation from a team that went 13-18 last season, Hamilton’s first as Colonels head man.
However, Eastern returns promising sophomores Jomaru Brown, Houston King and Tre King and adds transfers Darius Hicks (North Carolina State) and Ty Taylor (Wichita State, UNC Wilmington) plus highly touted incoming freshman forward Michael Moreno.
Moreno, who led Scott County to back-to-back Sweet Sixteen runner-up finishes, is the most celebrated in-state prep prospect to sign with Eastern since 1980 Mr. Basketball Ervin Stepp of Phelps.
Gaining the statewide exposure necessary to allow Eastern to land more in-state players with the profile of Moreno is the motivation behind EKU’s all-Kentucky scheduling coup.
“We want to play fast. We want to press. We want to shoot a lot of threes,” Hamilton said. “We want to be the most exciting 40 minutes in sports. And (playing all the other in-state D-I teams) is a way for us to get that brand out throughout the state.”
In 1960-61, Morehead State went 5-6 in its games against all the other in-state Division I teams.
When EKU played every in-state foe in 2004-05, the Colonels went 3-4.
The caliber of teams Eastern will face as it pursues the “state championship” in 2019-20 is going to be daunting.
“Kentucky and Louisville, I think both of those teams can win the national title (in 2020),” Hamilton said. “Western Kentucky, they are probably a top-25 team in the country.
“Northern (Kentucky) has had a great run. Murray State is coming off one of the best years in program history. And Morehead State, (Coach) Preston Spradlin does a great job. So this is going to be a huge challenge.”
However it turns out, it will also be an historic one.