Mark Story

Mark Story: Ready to run at Morehead, Sean Woods is pumped to be back in Kentucky

Former Wildcat Sean Woods takes the helm at Morehead State after Donnie Tyndall's move to Southern Mississippi.
Former Wildcat Sean Woods takes the helm at Morehead State after Donnie Tyndall's move to Southern Mississippi. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The last time Sean Woods worked the sidelines as a college basketball coach, it was unforgettable on several fronts.

For one, President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron were in the stands. "How about that?" Woods said Wednesday, his voice still lifting in wonder.

What the two most powerful men in the English-speaking world saw was Woods endure the kind of loss that rips a coach's heart out.

In Dayton, Ohio, for a First Four matchup of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, Woods and Mississippi Valley State held a 16-point lead over Western Kentucky University with 4:51 left in the game — only to see WKU unleash a 22-5 run to end the contest and win 59-58.

"I have watched that (game) tape a couple times. It's tough, it is, but I think my guys just ran out of gas," Woods said. "But as tough a loss as that was, maybe if we had won that game against Western, I wouldn't be here at Morehead. Maybe I'd have gotten another job. And I'm really excited to be back in Kentucky coaching."

Since Donnie Tyndall parlayed his ample success at Morehead State into the top job at Southern Mississippi last spring, Woods, the ex-Kentucky point guard, is now the man charged with keeping MSU basketball relevant.

After defying the odds to build an NCAA Tournament team at Mississippi Valley State, a school with sparse resources in a "football state," Woods is relishing a chance to again be part of college basketball in the hoops-mad commonwealth.

In Kentucky, Woods will always be remembered from his days as one of UK's Unforgettables, the four seniors who stuck with UK through a harsh NCAA probation and took the Wildcats within Christian Laettner's buzzer-beater of the 1992 Final Four.

On Wednesday, Woods said he had spoken on the phone that day with his ex-UK teammates Deron Feldhaus and Richie Farmer.

At Morehead State, Woods, 42, is undaunted by having big shoes to fill. For a school that had not made an NCAA Tournament appearance since 1984, Tyndall took the Eagles dancing in 2009 and 2011. The latter trip featured the epic round-of-64 upset of Louisville.

"My job," Woods says, "is to come in here and make it better."

Unlike a season ago, when Tyndall compensated for the loss of graduated stars Kenneth Faried and Demonte Harper by dialing his team's offensive pace down to a slow groove, Woods' plan is for Morehead to push the tempo up, up, up in the coming season.

"You know me, and you know my background," says the former floor general for Rick Pitino. "I want to play fast, and I want to play fast on both ends of the floor."

Toward that end, Morehead's roster features a whopping 19 players (not all are eligible to play this year). "I've got three teams, baby," Woods says. "We're going to shuffle them in and out."

Though he got a relatively late start recruiting, Woods added some players who sound intriguing.

Bakari Turner, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, averaged 24.4 points while earning junior-college All-America honors last season at Cedar Valley College in Texas. Maurice Lewis-Briggs, a 6-8 forward, went for 24.2 points and 13.7 rebounds last year at the Community College of Beaver County in Pennsylvania. Fifth-year senior Jason Holmes, a talented 6-9, 225-pound left-hander, followed Woods to Morehead from Mississippi Valley State.

"You don't get these types of guys every day in the OVC," Woods said.

The coaching task for Woods will be to blend the newcomers with Morehead returnees like Drew Kelly, Milton Chavis and Angelo Warner while installing his new system.

Morehead State has an intriguing non-league schedule. MSU will make a road trip to Maryland, renew its ancient rivalry with Marshall and take Woods to Rupp Arena on Nov. 21 for a UK reunion.

Other than the annual Kentucky-Louisville Armageddon, the most intensely contested men's college hoops game in the commonwealth this season could be in Morehead on Dec. 28.

That is when Tyndall brings his new team, Southern Miss, to Kentucky to face his old team.

"Nobody wants to play the guy they replaced," Woods said. "It was something that was set up between Southern Mississippi and Morehead before I got here. It's not typical. But it ought to be a great show for our fans. Hopefully, we'll have a full house. We should."

Fierce college hoops in a packed arena would make Sean Woods feel very much at home again in Kentucky.