WKU postseason thoughts

10 03 2010

Well, that was interesting. 

Anyone else tired? 

With a six-point loss to Troy on Monday in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament semifinals, Western Kentucky’s two-year run of dominance finally came to a halt. 

And while all runs must eventually come to a close – it’s always fun (for us journalists anyway) to ponder why. 

So let’s begin:

– A consistent second perimeter scorer was never developed

Now let me preface this by saying that when on, Sergio Kerusch was seriously getting it done from the outside. 

But that’s not really his game – Kerusch is at his best when he’s playing 18-feet and in, shooting only the occasional outside shot. 

For a team that shoots as many 3-pointers and relies on the outside shot like WKU has over the last two seasons, the absence of another lights out perimeter shooter to go along with A.J. Slaughter night in and night out really killed this team in the end. 

Caden Dickerson made great strides, but he’s just a freshmen – he’ll no doubt get better, but Dickerson really doesn’t have the seasoning yet to stick those huge shots when the team needs them the most. 

Anthony Sally hit a fantastic shot in WKU’s quarterfinal win on Sunday, but Sally’s not an outside shooter – and to his defense, he’s never really claimed to be. 

Steffphon Pettigrew can stretch the defense when necessary – but they don’t call him a Hilltopper Hercules for nothing, he’s at his best banging down on the blocks. 

Over the last three seasons, WKU has been very much a guard-oriented team offensively. 

Two years ago it was Courtney Lee and Tyrone Brazelton, last year it was Slaughter and Orlando Mendez-Valdez – all four of those guys could light the opposition up from 18 to 23 feet. 

This year – it was really just Slaughter. And in the end, with tired legs, the shots just didn’t fall when the group needed them to. 

That brings a big question moving forward into next season. Not really a question, I guess, but more like a necessity: WKU needs to shift itself to an interior ‘inside-out’ team. 

Look at the returners for next season. 

On the front line you’ll have Pettigrew, you’ll have senior transfer Juan Patillo, you’ll have Cliff Dixon and you’ll have Kerusch. All four of those guys have the ability to change a game on the glass and inside 15 feet. 

Add in anything WKU can get from 6-11 transfer center Teng Akol, 6-9 incoming freshman Stephon Drane and 6-6 incoming freshman Kene Anyigbo (seemingly a Pettigrew clone) and the Hilltoppers should be able to boast some serious beef next season. 

They’ll have to though, because unlike the 2008-09 season – WKU’s first after Lee and Brazelton left – there isn’t a Slaughter or Mendez-Valdez type waiting in the wings. 

Dickerson can shoot and defend, but he can’t create like Slaughter can. Jamal Crook has shown the ability to run a team from the point spot, but he’s not likely going to average double figure scoring (or one wouldn’t think). Jordan Swing still has some strides to make, and I really think he’ll turn out to be a fine player for the Hilltoppers, but he doesn’t have that uncanny ability to break down defenses the way Slaughter or Lee or Brazelton or Mendez-Valdez could. 

Now incoming freshman Brandon Peters is athletic as they come in the backcourt – but he’s not known for his outside game. He’ll be able to get into the lane and create a bit I’m sure – and maybe he’ll develop into a sharp-shooter before he’s done. But to expect that kind of slack to be completely picked up by a true freshman is a bit unrealistic. 

A bit of an era ended on Monday, and with that, I’d fully expect to see a much different basketball team take the floor at E.A. Diddle Arena next season – a team that relies much more on bulk and power than it does on speed and deep shooting. 

– Someone needs to start  some shirt-grabbing

Now I’m not saying anyone needs to start slapping their hands on the floor a ‘la Steve Wojciechowski (no need to get ridiculous). 

But in terms of aggressive, in your-face on-court leadership – the Hilltoppers were lacking this year. 

A.J. Slaughter and Jeremy Evans were the leaders of this team – and both led in their own ways and were very effective at doing so (especially down the stretch), but both of those guys are pretty mild-mannered. 

Slaughter did a fantastic job of ‘taking over’ when the team needed him to, especially offensively. 

But WKU’s biggest problems this year didn’t lie on the offensive end. 

Countless times, again and again, the Hilltoppers fell into holes this season – and that happened on the defensive end. 

Whether it was trouble stopping dribble penetration, trouble blocking out, trouble defending the paint or just simply a lack of overall intensity – when WKU wasn’t defending this season, the Hilltoppers were below average. 

Ken McDonald said last night that in order to meet expectations, you’ve got to put yourself in position to do so – I agree. But I’ll go further with that. Coaches can scream, yell, give the silent treatment, bust out shoulder pads – whatever – sometimes it simply doesn’t work. 

When a team’s on the floor, and things are falling short, someone needs to be able to step in a huddle, look every one of his teammates in the eye, grab them by the jersey and let them know that the effort simply isn’t good enough. 

Players trust their coaches, and that’s true at WKU. But players on good teams trust each other more. Meaning that if a player gets in another player’s face  (in a constructive way) – the message is going to be better delivered than if a coach does so. 

Now I think this year’s WKU squad eventually got to a point where it did trust each other on the floor, it took a while, but it happened. With that said though, there was never a point in a game where WKU was falling in one of those patented holes that someone on the floor grabbed everyone else by the ear and sent a message. 

Every great team has at least one guy like that. At all levels of basketball. It’s part of the game. And it’s part of the puzzle WKU didn’t have this year and needs to find in the future. 

– Time for that chip to turn into a boulder

WKU talked a lot toward the end of this season about playing with a chip on its shoulder. 

The only problem was, that chip didn’t find its way into the picture until late January. 

In my time in Bowling Green, the Western Kentucky basketball team has been at its best when it thought people were doubting them. 

Entering this year, the Hilltoppers weren’t being doubted – they were being praised, and at a ridiculously high level. 

And with that, some of that edge slowly but surely starts to fade away. 

McDonald spent a lot of time early in the season talking about what could be in terms of big picture stuff – at-large berths, national spotlight, finding a way into the mainstream of the college basketball landscape. 

That was a mistake. And a mistake he basically admitted midway through the year. 

It almost felt like that while WKU was focusing on what could be down the road, it forgot about what was going on in the present. 

Like it or not, folks, Western Kentucky is a Sun Belt Conference institution – and barring any kind of shocker, that’s not changing anytime soon. 

Meaning that if WKU wants to get itself into that big-time stage – its got to take care of business in its own backyard. 

And this season, that didn’t happen. 

The Hilltoppers ‘owe’ a lot of people in the Sun Belt moving forward into next year – so that chip should come back again. 

If we voted today, WKU probably wouldn’t get my pick to win the league next season – and if that remains the case next fall, perhaps that ‘we’ll show them’ attitude will return.




2 responses

10 03 2010

Nick that was an excellent summary of WKU’s season. It all started with the fans hype of the team and McDonald just fanned the flames by talking about national prominance early on. They simply weren’t focused and hungry enough until near the end. But I bet they will surprise us next year and exceed expectations! Go Tops!

10 03 2010
Sports Posters

Nick thanks for the update. It’s always great to see someone passionate about a lesser known team. Your writing, and enthusiasm has made me interested in WKU… I can’t believe that I actually come back and check out this blog. Thanks for the quality work.

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