Not so long ago in 2008, the WKU Hilltoppers were a NCAA Sweet 16 darling. But, after that magical run ("Ty Rogers! Does in Drake!") the Hilltoppers lost coach Darrin Horn to South Carolina as is the normal cycle at places like WKU. His replacement, Ken McDonald, raked up a pile of positive Topper capital by taking the subsequent "rebuilding" 2008-09 team within a Gonzaga buzzer beater of a Sweet 16 return in 2009. The 2010-11 team was stacked with veterans and hopes peaked in early November of that year. Alas, the goodwill in Topperdom eroded as that team struggled all season and never reached its potential. Then, last year's team had completely unraveled by mid-season before playing a bit better in the last few games to finish .500. Coach McDonald's employment status was in doubt when the season ended, but the WKU administration decided to cut his pay significantly, start again (with the same coach), and openly labeled this year's bunch of Hilltoppers "#TeamReset" (yes, that is a working hashtag).
#TeamReset is more than just a name, given that WKU is one of the youngest teams (THE youngest?) in the nation with nine new faces, seven of whom are true freshmen. A minimum of two (and probably three) of those freshmen will start all season. But, it seems nothing comes easy these days in Topperland, as two of those rookies are currently sitting out related to questions about summer employment (a long story beyond the scope of this piece). The worst case scenario is that they will be eligible on November 26. Further, the Toppers were missing two other eligible players this night as well for other reasons.
On the other hand, Tennessee State has been on the upswing the last couple of seasons and seems poised to challenge in the Ohio Valley Conference in 2011-12. With lots of firepower returning and a green opponent on tap, they had to like their chances for a road win against a very young and short-handed Topper club. Both teams were coming off season-opening losses, as WKU fell at home to Saint Joseph's and TSU was blasted at Saint Louis. Tonight's game demonstrated why those opening losses happened. Both teams hate scoring.
Let's begin with the positives. Both clubs showed some effective defense (44 combined turnovers forced). TSU's came via aggressive half- and full-court traps while WKU pressured the ball with abandon in the half-court mostly in the form of on-the-ball pestering by true freshman Derrick Gordon. WKU blasted out to an 8-0 lead thanks in part to forcing some turnovers which had the Diddle Arena crowd into the game immediately, but that would essentially be the last of any real offensive runs in this game.
The last 35 minutes were a siege on the eyes and the rims. The two teams combined for 6-33 shooting from deep, including a 1-13 effort from TSU. Non-offensive factors like WKU's +6 turnover margin and superiority on the glass helped the Toppers salvage a win from brick pile. To be fair, it was those things plus some unorthodox and timely offense from junior guard Jamal Crook. He buried the first three of his career to break a 45-45 tie and give WKU a three point lead late in the game. On the next possession, he hoisted a twisting, long two-pointer as the shot clock expired that banked in, popped out, and back in to seemingly lift WKU victory. But (remember, nothing is easy in Topperland these days), two Topper turnovers re-opened the door for TSU in the waning seconds. Crook again came to the rescue with a big rebound and two free throws to make the final margin 52-49.
Both teams must find some offense to beat decent teams. Granted, WKU was quite short-handed and #TeamReset does have some talented youngsters. But, the outside shooting is still suspect and the points do not come easy for this group. For TSU, the OVC seems as open as it has been in awhile, but they likely have work to do to hang with perennials like Austin Peay and Murray State. Those OVC stalwarts usually find ways to play good basketball by conference time.
at WESTERN KENTUCKY 52, TENNESSEE STATE 49 11/14/2011
TENNESSEE STATE 0-2 (0-0) -- P. Miller 1-7 3-4 5; W. Peters 3-5 1-2 8; R. Covington 7-13 3-3 17; K. Moore 1-3 5-7 7; K. Thornton 4-7 0-0 8; M. Rhett 1-2 0-2 2; K. Butcher 1-3 0-0 2; J. Cyphers 0-4 0-0 0; M. Green 0-1 0-0 0; J. Harris 0-1 0-0 0; T. Fredrick 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-46 12-18 49. WESTERN KENTUCKY 1-1 (0-0) -- D. Gordon 4-9 2-2 10; N. Snipes 1-4 1-2 3; J. Crook 5-8 2-2 13; C. Dickerson 1-3 1-2 4; K. McDonald 1-7 0-0 3; O. Akamune 1-4 2-2 4; K. Kaspar 2-5 1-2 7; K. Anyigbo 2-3 0-0 4; V. Zollo 2-4 0-0 4. Totals 19-47 9-12 52.
Three-point goals: TSU 1-13 (W. Peters 1-3; J. Cyphers 0-2; R. Covington 0-2; P. Miller 0-2; K. Moore 0-1; K. Butcher 0-2; J. Harris 0-1), WKU 5-20 (C. Dickerson 1-3; J. Crook 1-1; K. McDonald 1-7; D. Gordon 0-3; K. Kaspar 2-4; N. Snipes 0-1; V. Zollo 0-1); Rebounds: TSU 27 (R. Covington 14), WKU 31 (O. Akamune 6); Assists: TSU 7 (P. Miller 4), WKU 12 (J. Crook 3); Total Fouls -- TSU 16, WKU 19; Fouled Out: TSU-None; WKU-K. McDonald.