By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton considers Kentucky and Louisville two of the top teams in the nation. Hamilton will get a glance at both teams this season starting Friday night when the Colonels take on the second-ranked Wildcats at Rupp Arena.
“You look at Kentucky and Louisville and you can say either one of those teams could win the national championship,” Hamilton said. “They’re good enough.”
In addition to Kentucky and the Cardinals, Hamiton’s squad also plays Western Kentucky, Northern Kentucky University and league foes Morehead State and Murray State this season, marking the third time in state history a program wlll have played all six Division-I programs within the state in the same season.
Now in his second season in Richmond, the former Scott County High School standout intentionally pieced together a top-heavy schedule in an effort to bring statewide awareness to his program.
“We wanted to just to continue to build our brand of basketball within our state,” Hamilton said. “There wasn’t a better ay (to do it) than for us to play everybody in Kentucky. When I got here, having a brand and an identity was very important. Our brand is the most exciting 40 minutes in sports. We press, we shoot a lot of threes, we play fast and we play really hard. We want to continue to build on that brand.”
A year ago, the Colonels finished 13th in nation in scoring, second in steals and forced turnovers per game and also was No 2 in tempo.
“Our team last year was able to establish the brand and our style of play,” Hamilton said. “It’s so important for us to recruit our state. For us to continue to build or brand and the excitement of our program, recruiting the state of Kentucky is very important and it’s paid off.”
Eastern opening the season with a 79-68 win over Chattanooga Tuesday night at McBrayer Arena. The Colonels scored 15 unanswered to open the second half to overcome the Mocs. Houston King led Eastern with 19 points, but North Carolina State transfer Darius Hicks produced a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds.
The performance by Hicks wasn’t a surprise to Hamilton, who will be counting on Hicks to pick up the slack vacated by Nick Mayo. Hamilton said Hicks “is a great leader, leads by example and he’s doing a tremendous job in our program.”
“There’s no way you can replace Nick Mayo, but we’ve got a good one in Darius Hicks,” he said. “He’ll have a major impact in our program and probably (will be) the fan favorite, because he plays with so much passion, energy, he’s tough and he’s relentless. We’re expecting a big season out of him. Our fans are going to love him.”
The Colonels finished 13-18 in Hamilton’s first year at Eastern and the second-year head coach wants to continue to rebuild the program one season at a time. Eastern’s top priority is making the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament for the first time in four years.
“We’ve got to keep building our program,” Hamilton said. “Obviously, with any coach you want to improve the win-loss record and that’s a given. We’ve got to just continue to build our brand of basketball, our identity and continue to build excitement around our program. It’s time now. We’ve got to make the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. It’s time. We’ve got to make that push this year. It’s a long drought for a great university.”
To get there, Hamilton said the Colonels have to close out close contests.
“You’ve got to win close games,” Hamilton said. “That’s so important, we’ve got to close our close games.”
GAMETRACKER: Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky, 7 p.m., Friday. Radio: 100.7 The Coyote, WCYO-FM
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.