We continue this Ezekiel show coast to coast on CBS Sports Radio March Madness. We're right around the corner for the NCAA Tournament Conference Championships being handed out left and right. And the Bulldogs of UNC Asheville are dancing as Big South Champions.
And now joining us is their head coach and Mike Morrell. Coach, first off, congratulations. Appreciate the time.
I would ask you how you're doing, but I think I know the answer to that one. No other way to put it, man. It's been a great week.
I appreciate you having me on. Has it sunk in yet? Have you been able to process it that your squad is off to the NCAA Tournament next week? You know, yesterday, for whatever reason, it kind of started to sink in. Those first two days were a little bit of a blur, especially with the way our championship game ended. But, you know, thankfully, man, we're on spring break right now. We were able to give the guys a few days off and the staff got a few days off. So it's been a little bit of a whirlwind, but it kind of started to sink in and we got our guys back today.
So it's slowly but surely it is. But sometimes I'm still pinching myself a little bit. Well, you know what was on the line and the pressure that was at the task of your team to be down by 14 in the second half, either you're going to come back and go to the NCAA Tournament or you won't. The fact that you guys were able to accomplish that, just what does it say about the toughness of your basketball team that we saw in those final seven minutes?
Just a lot of poise. You know, we were fortunate. I say fortunate now. We didn't know we were fortunate at the time. We had had a couple of similar experiences. We were down 10 with about four to go at UCF opening game of the season and came back and won.
And we're down nine at the last media Gardner-Webb about a month and a half ago. We were able to come back and win. So I think that gave us some confidence in the moment that we could do it. And then, you know, Tejon Jones kind of willed us to the wind there late with, you know, his offensive performance. And, man, it was, you know, somebody asked, you know, what do you remember about the last seven and a half minutes? Not a hell of a lot, honestly, man. I don't remember much.
That's awesome. So you were relieved and celebrating, obviously, afterwards. What were you thinking about, Coach, when you were walking off the court after all that mayhem that did go down? Truthfully, I was just trying to find somebody to hug. I'm like, somebody give me a hug, man.
Like, where's everybody at? I kind of found myself, like, I don't know, I kind of went through the handshake line because the coach at Campbell is, you know, is a friend and, you know, Chuck kind of wanted to go through that. And then I'm kind of at the end of that handshake line of my way, I'm kind of by myself down here.
But I start moving down to the other end. I needed some love, man. And I had nobody there to give me any love because I kind of went through the handshake line. But, man, it was a special experience. And, you know, we won four games my first year here.
You know, I'm in my fifth season now. So there was a lot of work and a lot of effort that went into that moment. And, you know, when I finally got down to the other end with the guys, man, it was an emotional experience, for sure. Well, Coach, if you want to fly out, my producer and yours truly, to the NCAA tournament, if you guys pull off the upset, we'll be there to hug you. There's no doubt about that.
Yeah, man, at that point, man, I was just looking for somebody to put my hands on, man. I was a happy camper, no doubt. So you talked about how this is your fifth year now as the head basketball coach at UNC Asheville. You guys are off to the NCAA tournament that first year.
You guys are 4-27, like you just said. Now looking back at it five years later, what did that 4-27 year really teach you as a head coach? Man, it taught me everything. You know, it was humbling.
You know, I was an assistant for Shocker Smart at the University of Texas. You know, you don't leave a great job like that, you know, in your mind to go win four games your first year. But I'll be honest with you, man, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. And honestly, to our team, Taejon Jones was the only person even in the program that's still here.
It was just me and him. And so to watch him in that last seven and a half minutes go off the way he did was just kind of storybook. But I learned a lot, man. I learned that, one, we got to get better and, two, that I got to get better.
And, you know, it was, again, a very humbling experience. And we were able to get to 15 wins the next year. But I really believe we were able to have the success that we had this year because we failed and came up short so many times. We just had a resilient group who, they just wouldn't take no for an answer. And, you know, the guys, you know, a lot's made on our team about Drew Pember and Taejon Jones.
But, man, it was everybody else who kind of came to the rescue when we needed it most, which is, that's what team is. But you got to trust your process. You also got to adjust. That's what the best coaches do. But, naturally, and I think sometimes people are afraid to admit it, sometimes you doubt yourself. I'm just wondering, did you ever doubt yourself after that four-win season about making that transition from being an assistant to then being in the big chair on the sideline as the head coach? Absolutely, man. I go through that now, man. You know, the old adage of, you know, you're either humble or you're about to be humble.
And, you know, that was me. And, you know, you get humbled. And everybody, you know, I say everybody, when you're an assistant coach, man, it's easy to sit over there, you know, two feet over and say, man, I'd do it this way and I'd do it this way and I'd do it this way. And then you get two feet in the fire and it's like, oh, I understand why Coach Smart did some of the things that he did. You know, I find myself anytime I'm talking to coach these days, coach, man, you know, I'm sorry.
I should have been better for you. And, you know, you have that perspective, but you don't really get it until you're there and, you know, until you're a head coach. So, yeah, man, I had a lot of self-doubt and, you know, fought a lot of battles with myself just about is this the right thing to do?
Did I make the right decision? But I've had really, really good support here from our administration, but much as anything from our players. And, you know, again, Taejon Jones has had as much to do with this turnaround as I have. And that's really cool to go through this with him.
What did you guys talk about you and Taejon Jones after the game with the journey that you guys have been through? Well, he chose to come back here for his sixth year, so he's getting his second degree. And, you know, it was more just he didn't have to do that.
We talked about it, you know, and talked about was that what's best for him? And he wanted another go. And, you know, he's the all time leading scorer here. He's played more games than any player in Big South history. He's played more minutes than any player in Big South history. And so he's got all the awards individually that he could have. But that was what he did.
He didn't have a ring. He had gotten the chance to cut a net down. And that's what we talked about. It wasn't as much talk as it was. I finally got the hug I really wanted. And you probably had a tear in your eye, right, when you see him climb that ladder and cut down the nets.
I was a goober, man. I was all over the place. He was actually talking to a TV station. And I just thought, man, you know what, I ain't worried about that camera. I kind of interrupted that particular interview because that was five years coming, man.
That's awesome. Mike Morrell here with us, the head coach at UNC Asheville, off to the NCAA tournament as Big South champs. Drew Pember comes over from Tennessee last year, 15.7 points per game, 6.6 rebounds. This year, 21.2 points per game and 9.4 rebounds per game. How has he been able to fit into what you guys were building? And how have you even seen him grow from year one at your program to year number two? Yeah, he's made a lot of growth.
And I tell people this all the time. The best thing about Drew Pember is how good of a person he is. He's just as humble. He's the best player on our team, and you would never know it in how he acts.
He's just as humble as any – as the 13th man. And I think that's what allows him to be very, very good in the fact that guys love playing with him. He leads the country in free throw makes, and he leads the country in free throw attempts. Guys do a really good job of supporting him, especially offensively. And we have good shooting on the court and better shooting than we had last year.
And I think it's helped space before for him to attack even more this year. And he's just grown. He's grown physically. He's grown mentally. He's one of the smartest players I've ever coached. And when you culminate all that together with 6'11 and all the skill that he has, it's just – frankly, he's just a unicorn in a lot of ways in all the different things that he can do. And he's definitely obviously been the single biggest addition that we've had here at UNC Asheville in my time.
It's good to see Shaka Smart having success again now at Marquette. Wonderful what he did at VCU. You were there for that ride. Just how did you guys link up, and how do you reflect on that relationship?
Oh, it's everything to me, man. We actually worked at Clemson in 2007 and 2008 together. I was a graduate assistant coach. I was an assistant coach for Oliver Purnell.
And, you know, we just – we quickly just bonded over work. And, you know, I learned very, very quickly that he was a special person. He was a special coach. He was just unlike anybody I had ever been around in terms of how he fought and how he just worked.
And so I'm like, listen, I need to learn from this guy. And so, you know, when he went to VCU and after a couple of years, I got there in his third year after the final four run and then went on to Texas with him. It's just, you know, obviously, you know, to put it in the most simplistic of terms, I just wouldn't be here without him in any way, shape or form.
He's hired – I've worked with him at three different schools. I just think he's the best, man. And Marquette and he has just an unbelievable marriage in terms of what he values, what they value. And, you know, his team is just – you won't talk about fun to watch. So, man, it's everything to me.
And, you know, to say that I, you know, am a product of him is something I'm really, really proud of. Well, you'll find out on Sunday where you guys are going to be going, who you're going to be playing, what the seed is going to be. But when that ball tips up in the air, whenever you open up on – depending on the day of the tourney on that Thursday or Friday, what do you think is going to be going through your mind, Coach? I hope nothing really different.
You know, I hope it's very similar, although nothing will be similar, and I know that. But, you know, just try to, you know, understand that, you know, still 40 minutes. And, you know, I'm not sure we're going to need to do the Hoosiers thing where we measure the basket and see if it's ten feet. But, you know, I think for us it's just try to be as consistent, you know, as we can possibly be knowing that whatever team we draw is going to be the best team we've seen all year. But then also have belief that, you know, if we're the best version of ourselves, that's enough. And so do our best to do that. And, man, also along the ride really, really enjoy it because that NCAA tournament, man, is hard to get to. And this will be my tenth one, obviously, first time as a head coach. But it's been a while since I've been there, so we're going to enjoy it too. Could you imagine if you guys get Marquette in the first round? No, I don't even want to think about it.
So I'm deflecting that question in every way, shape, and form. My mom even said something about it after the game. I'm like, why would you even put that out into the universe?
I'm like, don't even do that. But, you know. Well, Larry Brown once told me it's no fun coaching up against friends. It's not.
It's not. You know, Bob Ritchie is one of my closest friends. And, you know, obviously it's his first time going to the NCAA tournament too. And we worked together at Charleston Southern. And we had to play each other the first year. And after that we're like, we ain't never doing that again. That sucked. So now we just scrimmage and yell at each other from the opposing side.
There's nobody in the gym that can tell any difference. So that's what we do now. That's a lot more fun. Well, Coach, first off, congratulations to your program. We really appreciate learning more about your squad. And good luck and hopefully you guys have a nice run here coming up next week. Hey, thanks so much. Thanks for having me on.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-03-09 20:30:38 / 2023-03-09 20:36:53 / 6