When you play basketball in the state of Kentucky, it goes without saying that the Kentucky Wildcats are the program that the smaller schools try to emulate. With that, they hope, comes a similar brand of success. Eventually.
36 year-old Dan McHale is the second-year head coach of Eastern Kentucky and is a graduate of the University of Kentucky, so he understands better than anybody what a stranglehold the Wildcats have had in it.
"[It's] the most basketball-rich state in the entire country," he said. "Any time you can coach or play in the state of Kentucky, it’s a privilege."
McHale’s optimism can be infectious when speaking with him, especially when he says that he believes the Colonels can become a consistent winner.
McHale is a native of Chatham, NJ, but chose to attend Kentucky for the sole purpose of pursuing a career as a basketball coach. He spoke of his first visit to UK, where he met the student manager at the time, who was also from New Jersey and convinced him that UK was the place to be. That student is Frank Vogel, who is now the head coach of the Orlando Magic.
Eastern Kentucky is McHale’s first head coaching position after stints as an assistant at some of college basketball’s most prestigious programs. He was a part of Tubby Smith’s National Championship staff at Kentucky, he spent two stints alongside Kevin Willard at Seton Hall and Iona, plus two years in the Big Ten under Richard Pitino at Minnesota.
However, McHale notes his two stints on Rick Pitino’s Louisville staff as his major influence in coaching
"I owe everything I have in my coaching career to Rick Pitino," he said. "He gave me a chance at Louisville and he’s had his hand in my career every step of the way."
He compared his four years at Louisville to "working at IBM on the ground level and being able to be in countless staff meetings" as a formula to help him guide his program at EKU where he wants it to be.
Eastern Kentucky went 15-16 during but McHale’s first season as head coach, but he sees the glass as half full, and says they won more games than he had anticipated, including a road win over Belmont that McHale noted as a key point in his squad's growth in the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC).
The Colonels also set a school record for points per game (80.5), which was good for 18th in the country. McHale is even more optimistic on EKU’s potential for next season.
"Now that I’ve got my culture established," he said, "I’ve brought in a huge class and I think now the foundation can be built."
McHale pointed out some key players on his squad that will be counted on to lead the Colonels moving into next season, including reigning OVC Freshman of the Year and First Team All-Conference forward Nick Mayo. The 6-9 Mayo averaged 14.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per game and started every game for the Colonels. Mayo was lightly recruited out of high school, but McHale says expects the casual fan to know his name soon.
"Everybody is gonna know who Nick Mayo is," he said. "He came from the back woods of Maine and was a pitcher in high school who could throw 90 mph and he didn’t play much basketball. His name will be called in the NBA draft someday."
Other keys to this season include senior guard Isaac McGlone, who started 30 games for EKU. McHale calls him his "ultimate glue guy."
Senior guard Jalyn Babb-Harrison led the conference in three-point field-goal percentage (45.3) and will have the green light to shoot even more this year.
True freshman guard Asante Gist was the prize of EKU’s recruiting class out of St. Anthony (New Jersey), where he played under legendary coach Bob Hurley. Gist turned down offers from Seton Hall, Rutgers and South Florida, among others, to come play for Dan McHale.
Moving into next season and beyond, the Colonels will be in even better shape with the addition of transfers like former Kansas guard Rio Adams and Lexington, KY native Jackson Davis, who left Butler to come home and play for the Colonels.
By talking to him, it's clear to see why the leadership at EKU believes McHale could be the one to bring the program to even greater heights. Now it's on McHale to follow through.