Morrell has been fortunate enough to be part of six NCAA Tournament teams in his first seven years as a full-time college assistant. This was the third straight season he was part of a Shaka Smart staff that got VCU to the Big Dance, and he was an assistant under Oliver Purnell when Clemson went three times (2008-10).
So the big picture keeps Morrell from focusing on a loss to 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin in the Rams’ NCAA opener. Not many 31-year-olds have experienced March Madness six times in seven years.
“I’ve been pretty lucky to be able to say that,” said Morrell, a 1,000-point scorer at Elizabethton and Milligan before beginning his coaching career at King. “It’s an exciting feeling, because it’s something that you work for all year. … I can tell you that that feeling watching Selection Sunday and seeing your name pop up there on the screen, no matter what seed you are or where you’re going or who the matchup is – it’s the same feeling every year, just the excitement and the joy of knowing that you’re in there. That’s certainly something that will never get old.”
Still, it’d be easy to get a gray hair or two thinking about the endgame against Stephen F. Austin. VCU led the Lumberjacks by four points when it missed two free throws with 10 seconds left. SFA responded by converting a four-point play with 3.6 seconds left and then won 77-75 in overtime.
“We were up four at the free throw line with 10 seconds to go,” Morrell said. “So you just never know what can happen. Finishing games, making free throws, taking care of the basketball is what wins you games now.”
It was the 29th straight victory for SFA, which hadn’t lost since playing East Tennessee State in Freedom Hall in November.
“I actually saw some of that film,” Morrell said. “Any time you’ve won as many games as they had in a row, it doesn’t matter what your name is or what level you’re at. They were really well coached, played extremely hard, very tough and I thought they were just extremely confident. … And they just battled and battled and battled, and they gave themselves a chance to win at the end of the game.”
VCU’s brand has remained hot since reaching the Final Four in 2011, as has Smart’s. His most recent suitor was Marquette, as he was apparently ahead of Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin. He’s been pursued by North Carolina State, Illinois and UCLA since reaching the Final Four.
It's understandable. VCU, Syracuse and Duke are the only programs to win at least 26 games each of the past five seasons.
Rice’s recent hire of Mike Rhoades made it three straight years a Smart assistant has gotten a head coaching job. Chattanooga hired Will Wade around this time last year, and Jamion Christian went the year before that to Mount St. Mary’s, which reached the NCAA Tournament.
And Smart is obviously critical to VCU getting a commitment from a prospect the caliber of Detroit’s Justin Tillman.
Of course, the on-court product is still key for the Rams, whose energetic defense and up-tempo pace can create havoc on the court and the recruiting trail. A 59-56 win at Virginia, which won the ACC title en route to a No. 1 seed, highlighted a season that included going 7-0 against the state of Virginia.
“They had a really good team at Virginia,” Morrell said. “Sold out, 16,000 people – it was a huge win for us.”
Morrell chuckled while noting the talent on last year’s U-19 national team’s coaching staff, which featured head coach Billy Donovan with Smart and UVa’s Tony Bennett as assistants.
“What a good staff that is; Coach Smart, Coach Bennett and Coach Donovan – that’s pretty good basketball coaching there,” Morrell said. “I don’t know Coach Bennett very well, but what I know of him he’s nothing but class.”
The Rams’ highlight victories this season included beating Richmond (three times), rival Old Dominion, George Mason and routing Virginia Tech in the Richmond Coliseum.
“We owned our state this year,” Morrell said, “which is huge for recruiting.”
The Rams also beat Sweet 16 participant Dayton and nationally ranked St. Louis, which rallied past North Carolina State in the beginning of what’s been a bizarrely fascinating tournament of foul-fueled rallies, instant-replay reviews and questionable charge calls.
“I think anytime you get to March, matchups are key,” Morrell said. “And the parity in college basketball right now is as high as it’s ever been. I mean, everybody can play when you get to this time of year. … As you can see, it seems like every single game in the tournament’s coming down to the last two or three possessions.”
Morrell likes VCU’s chances next March, a season which will include a visit from what looks like a pretty talented ETSU team.
“We had a great year, won 26 games,” Morrell said. “Our brand has really went to a national level. We signed the 15th-ranked recruiting class by ESPN. That’s a pretty big deal here at VCU. Obviously, having coach Smart helps – with that type of charisma. … It’s exciting to be a part of this.”
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