In previous recaps, I have referred to WKU as #TeamReset, as the administration opted to keep their beleaguered coach last Spring and "hit the reset buttonm" partially because of nine new players coming into the program. Well, that lasted about one half of a season, as former head coach Ken McDonald was let go on January 6, 2012, citing abysmal fan attendance and lack of support on nearly every front. The team is indeed a young one, but pointing to any marked improvement over the first half of the season would be a challenge. For varied and complicated reasons (including a 5-11 record), the "reset" was "revoked" on January 6.
In most cases, if a situation warrants a mid-season firing, it means that the situation is dire. Usually, an interim head coach will shepherd the team through the end of the season and the staff will be wiped clean. Player defections will ensue. Fans will brace themselves for a couple of rebuilding years. And, at a school like WKU, the nation's hottest (if unproven) assistant coaches will come calling or will be called to palaver with search committees and university brass. But, just as #TeamReset was not out of the standard athletics playbook, the interim coach at WKU is not your standard, run-of-the-mill, average interim coach.
WKU interim head coach Ray Harper has four national championship rings, all below the black line. He won two at D-II powerhouse Kentucky Wesleyan and two more at NAIA Oklahoma City. He came on staff at WKU as the top assistant under Ken McDonald in 2008. While I would not say that Harper was the "coach in waiting," if McDonald had made a good run at WKU and left for "greener" pastures, Harper would have been nearly a shoo-in for the job. He is a rural Kentuckian, loves and understands basketball in the Commonwealth, wants to be at WKU, and is a proven winner. In fact, many felt he should have been in the head chair back in 2008.
So, this is now a complicated situation. WKU hoops has been in steady decline for two and a half years, and Harper has been on staff for all of it. However, most of Topper nation does not lay much blame at his feet, evidenced by recent attendance numbers. In Ken McDonald's last game as coach, there were 1,800 people in Diddle Arena. In Ray Harper's first game as interim coach, there were nearly 5,300 in attendance, and there were well over 4,200 at today's mid-day contest. The Toppers have played some bad basketball this season, but the WKU faithful still believe something can be redeemed from this season. And, many believe that because Ray Harper has moved down a chair on the bench (#TeamRayset, anyone?).
All that said, the Toppers welcomed rough-and-tumble UALR to town today. But, before we get to the action, it must be noted that Bally made his Diddle debut today, and he enjoyed it immensely. He sat in the lap of my five-year-old son most of the game. Here is a photo during warmups.
With the really important stuff out of the way (Bally and instilling five-year-olds with a love for local hoops), let us proceed with UALR at WKU. The UALR Trojans had a lackluster non-conference season, but raced out to a 5-0 start in the Sun Belt, including a win at Denver (a true rarity, as St. Mary's and Southern Miss failed to accomplish this task in the non-conference season). The Trojans did throw in a clunker in a loss at UL-Lafayette on Thursday, but UALR is generally considered the roughest, toughest, rootin'-est, tootin'-est bunch of hombres in the Belt. They play stout defense, and they are not afraid to wield implements of war to get things done if needed. Even with Thursday's loss, they were tied atop the West division and own the tie-breaker on Denver.
The Toppers had lost all three games in Harper's interim to date. One was the day after the firing of McDonald to Troy. The other two were on the toughest road swing in the Sun Belt (North Texas and Denver). But the Tops had showed signs of life in the second half at Denver, and there was hope of carryover into today's game. While the excellent shooting did not carry over from that Denver game, the effort and focus did. As expected, this was a nip-and-tuck, defensive affair throughout the first half. There were no big offensive runs, and it was a 28-27 slugfest at the half. The second frame offered more muscular jostling from UALR and intense trapping from WKU, neither giving up much more than offensive scraps to the other team. Both have been poor shooting teams all year and when UALR took a 49-44 lead with just under seven minutes to play, it felt like a double-digit margin.
But, over the last few minutes, out of nowhere, the home-standing Toppers turned this defensive slog into super-happy-offensive-fun-time. After scoring 44 points in the first 34 minutes, WKU detonated a 21-4 run to close the game over the last six minutes. The Toppers rolled up the points by relentlessly driving to the bucket or getting the ball down low to freshman George Fant for scores or to draw fouls. The Tops popped in 8 of 8 from the free throw line, and after a brick-laden 5-24 performance from three over the first 34 minutes, they took just one three during this gigantic run, a swished #superhoop by senior guard Kahlil McDonald. Hopefully, this focus on driving the ball will carry over to future games.
This recap is getting long, so let me sum up briefly by simply saying this: for the first time in quite awhile, basketball was fun again at WKU. The players smiled. The interim coach embraced his charges and the fans. The crowd roared. The streamers fell. The trajectory of Hilltopper hoops no longer tracks downward toward the abyss. While the new trajectory is not yet known, and the 2011-12 Toppers certainly have limitations that will not be overcome by sheer will, there is joy. There is hope. There are signs of life. There is an emphasis on conditioning, even in the middle of the season. There is a pressing defense. There is an identity forming.
And, there is an interim head coach with four under-the-black line championship rings at the forefront.
at WESTERN KENTUCKY 65, ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK 53 01/21/2012
ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK 8-13 (5-2) -- C. Jackson 6-12 2-2 14; D. Williams 6-11 2-2 16; C. Guy 1-8 0-0 2; M. Javes 2-3 2-2 6; T. Lockhart 2-3 0-2 4; R. Fondren 2-4 0-0 4; W. Neighbour 2-5 0-0 5; B. Dillard 0-2 0-0 0; T. Sutherland 1-3 0-0 2; E. Lawton 0-0 0-0 0; M. Louzeiro 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-51 6-8 53. WESTERN KENTUCKY 6-14 (2-5) -- D. Gordon 4-12 5-6 13; G. Fant 4-11 4-6 12; J. Crook 6-7 0-0 13; K. McDonald 4-11 0-0 9; V. Zollo 3-6 0-0 9; T. Price 1-6 4-4 6; T. Akol 0-0 0-0 0; K. Kaspar 1-3 0-0 3; N. Snipes 0-0 0-0 0; O. Akamune 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-56 13-16 65.
Three-point goals: UALR 3-11 (T. Sutherland 0-1; D. Williams 2-3; R. Fondren 0-1; C. Guy 0-3; W. Neighbour 1-3), WKU 6-25 (J. Crook 1-1; K. McDonald 1-7; D. Gordon 0-4; K. Kaspar 1-3; T. Price 0-4; V. Zollo 3-6); Rebounds: UALR 30 (M. Javes 14), WKU 30 (G. Fant 6); Assists: UALR 9 (C. Jackson 3), WKU 13 (J. Crook 4); Total Fouls -- UALR 15, WKU 13; Fouled Out: UALR-None; WKU-None.