Reuniting with Shaka Smart led Elizabethton native Michael Morrell to the first of what might be many shining moments.
Morrell, a first-year assistant basketball coach under Smart at Virginia Commonwealth University, was part of his first NCAA Tournament victory when the Rams upset Wichita State in the first round last week.
VCU was seeded 12th for its matchup with the fifth-seeded Shockers. Forgive Morrell if he doesn’t put much stock in seeds, but he was part of three disappointing first-round losses as the higher seed while on Oliver Purnell’s staff at Clemson (2008-10).
“It was a great, great feeling to finally be a part of an NCAA Tournament win,” Morrell said.
Of course, joy was fleeting. The Rams led fourth-seeded Indiana 61-58 in the second round and had team leader Bradford Burgess at the foul line for two shots with 59 seconds left. But Burgess, an 80-percent foul shooter, missed both free throws and VCU didn’t score again in a 63-61 loss.
“It was a tough pill to swallow,” said Morrell, who was a 1,000-point scorer at Elizabethton and Milligan College. “I haven’t been able to watch it (the NCAA Tournament) since. You just wish so bad you were still playing — more than anything, for your guys.”
It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for VCU, which lost four starters after last year’s stunning march to the Final Four. And the Rams began the year 2-3, an outset that included double-digit losses to Georgia Tech and Seton Hall in the Charleston Classic and a loss to former VCU coach Anthony Grant’s Alabama.
But an eight-game wins streak ensued, including a 23-point victory against South Florida and a gratifying overtime triumph at Akron. Before you knew it, VCU had piled up a school-record 29 wins and was seconds away from a second straight Sweet 16 berth.
Burgess, the team’s lone senior, broke Patrick Ewing’s national record for consecutive starts (he ended at 148) while leading the Rams in scoring, averaging 5.1 rebounds and shooting 37 percent while making 78 3-pointers.
“He was a great leader,” Morrell said. “He hurt an ankle in July that really kind of hampered him throughout the fall, and it worried us.”
There are seemingly no worries around Smart, a 34-year-old wunderkind who hired Morrell for Purnell at Clemson after Morrell had begun his career at King College by working under Scott Polsgrove and then George Pitts.
Smart left Clemson for Florida after one season together with Morrell (2007-08), who was at Clemson three years before coaching last season at Charleston Southern after Purnell got the DePaul job.
It looked like Morrell might be dealing with another mentor moving to Illinois, as Smart was reportedly offered the Illinois job this week.
Smart turned down North Carolina State last year, which was especially gutsy when considering the Rams were losing four starters from an unprecedented Final Four team. His stock, it seemed, could only drop.
Obviously, looking into other jobs suggests Smart most likely will eventually wind up another rung up the hoops ladder trying to cut down bigger conferences’ nets than those in the Colonial Athletic Association.
But part of Smart’s turndowns appears to be rooted in loyalty, and perhaps even more comes from not wanting to be hasty in leaving a place where he’s happy.
Could he end up being an East Coast version of Gonzaga’s Mark Few?
“The VCU brand is as hot as it’s probably ever been,” Morrell said. “Every home game was a sellout. The support up here is unbelievable. Richmond’s in love with the team. It’s a great time to be here.”
VCU has history, including some generated by another Carter Countian and Milligan alumnus. Sonny Smith quickly turned the program around after taking over a 13-15 team in 1989. He left nine seasons later with the program’s most victories (136) and led the Rams to the 1996 NCAA Tournament.
Smith did color commentary for CSS during a VCU game at Georgia State this season, but Morrell has yet to meet the man who coached the Rams’ Kendrick Warren, Auburn’s Charles Barkley and Chuck Person and East Tennessee State Buccaneers such as Cat Watson, B.J. Johnson, D.C. Smith and Bob Brown.
The same homespun humor that helped Smith get recruits and TV gigs assisted the Roan Mountain native in finding favor with the likes of VCU basketball secretary Dianne Long, who is still at the Richmond school.
“Dianne always says he was her favorite coach because he stayed here the longest,” Morrell said. “She loves Sonny. … She says we talk the same way.”
Other than the people, the main thing Morrell misses about Northeast Tennessee is some eateries and Dr. Enuf drinks. He said a friend brought him 24 bottles of Dr. Enuf when he attended the CAA Tournament earlier this month.
“I bought four cases the last time I was there,” Morrell said. “I love the stuff.”
If Morrell sticks with Smart, he could develop a taste for champagne, too. With two straight exceptional seasons, Smart’s career appears more likely to bubble over than fizzle out.
“I don’t know that anyone would’ve foreseen us going 29-7 this year,” Morrell said. “But we knew if we kept at it that come March we could be playing our best basketball – and we were. That all starts with Shaka. In my opinion, he’s the best in the country.”
Trey Williams is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org