WKU basketball: Some early-season observations from Puerto Rico

19 11 2010

We found out a few things tonight about where exactly the Western Kentucky basketball team stands in the infancy of the 2010-11 season.

Here’s a few of my observations from the first few weeks of the season, and what we might be able to expect moving forward.

– The half court game needs work

In WKU’s first two games of the season, the Hilltoppers were never really forced to settle into half court sets and make plays.

They scored a ton of points off turnovers against St. Joe’s and Alabama A&M wanted to press for some reason, allowing the Hilltoppers to get out in transition and create easy baskets.

But when Minnesota was able to settle in defensively, WKU really had no chance.

The Golden Gophers might end up being the best prepared defensive team WKU plays all season, simply because that’s what Tubby Smith does.

But even so, this group doesn’t have any consistent jump shooters outside of Caden Dickerson – and Dickerson needs help to get a shot off.

There is no fail safe with this group. A.J. Slaughter isn’t around to pull up from 28 feet when a play breaks down. Neither is Orlando Mendez-Valdez or even Ty Rogers for that matter.

Sergio Kerusch is streaky, but letting him fall in love with the outside shot is probably a slippery slope that Ken McDonald doesn’t want to head down. He needs to work inside out. Steffphon Pettigrew is Steffphon Pettigrew – he doesn’t take bad shots, and when he’s open on the perimeter, he makes them. But that’s not what he’s looking to do.

This is where a player like Kahlil McDonald could be extremely valuable – and he did show flashes tonight. Jamal Crook isn’t a strong outside shooter, Ken Brown is streaky and Brandon Peters is best off the dribble going to the rim.

I’d expect a lot of squads to throw active 2-3 looks at WKU this season, and until the Hilltoppers either find a way to make people pay from the outside or attack the rim with authority, those teams will be tough to handle.

This is something that was really masked over those first two games because, quite simply, WKU just had better athletes than St. Joe’s and A&M. That’s not always going to be the case, especially not during the early part of the season.

Pattillo mentioned after the A&M game that the offense had been flowing better early this season because no one was ‘standing around’ waiting for someone to bail them out with a contested 3-pointer.

Tonight, those old habits came back.

Of course the other end of this is in fact WKU’s defense itself. If the Hilltoppers aren’t allowing Minnesota to score at will, then the Golden Gophers have more trouble getting back and getting their zone set up.

Ultimately, a defensive effort like the one WKU put together tonight hurts everything.

– Pattillo needs to settle in

When Juan Pattillo is attacking the glass and playing team defense, he’s WKU’s best player on the floor.

But when he settles for jumpers and tries to take matters into his own hands on the other end, he gets lost in the shuffle.

Pattillo’s biggest asset is his athleticism, and despite the fact that he was pedestrian Thursday against Minnesota, he was still more than capable of physically holding his own against the Golden Gophers’ bigs.

Foul trouble hurt, but when he got back into the game, he went back to the Pattillo that we saw during the first half of the first exhibition game. A player that looked out of sync, rusty, nervous?

If you remember, Pattillo also got into foul trouble against St. Joe’s early on – but came back in the second half and dominated the boards while also living in passing lanes, altering shots and finishing at the rim.

He’s only got one season to prove he’s a big-time player, and tonight, it looked like he was trying to do way too much. He’s not a great jump shooter, he’s not a ball handler, he’s a 12-feet in player that is great when he’s running lanes on the break and being active on defense.

There’s no reason to think that he can’t come back Friday and do just that, but moving forward, playing under control could very well earn him Player of the Year honors in the Sun Belt. Not playing under control could cause a lot of issues for the Hilltoppers moving forward.

– Jamal Crook is ready to run a team

Crook doesn’t have the athletic ability that Ken Brown has and he’s not going to be able to score with Brown.

But defensively, he’s worlds better. Offensively, he’s more under control and he’d be the player that I’d want handling a set with 30 seconds to go and the game on the line.

He’s come off the bench for two straight games and really picked up WKU’s perimeter defense while also finding people on offense.

I wouldn’t be shocked to see Crook start Friday against Hofstra, because Ken McDonald seemed that upset with the overall decision making of Brown. Then again, this was Brown’s third Division 1 game. He’s got exceptional speed and is at his best when he’s going full speed ahead, he’s just got to figure out where exactly he’s going when he does so.

– Enjoy Pettigrew while you’ve got him

There aren’t too many players in recent WKU history that might be missed more than Steffphon Pettigrew when he graduates after this season.

Obviously Courtney Lee, Tyrone Brazelton, Orlando Mendez-Valdez, Slaughter and Jeremy Evans could have issues with that statement. And rightfully so on all counts.

But what Pettigrew does, every single game, just doesn’t come around very often.

And it’s been like that for the past three seasons.

He defends, he rebounds, he scores and he plays 35 minutes per game.

When WKU is on a roll, Pettigrew’s 17 points and 7 rebounds or so get lost in the shuffle. But when no one on the team can seem to muster anything, there’s Pettigrew carrying the load.

When WKU wins, it’s business as usual – when WKU loses, the thought often becomes ‘how much worse would it have been if not for Pettigrew?’

Tonight, when WKU was lost – Pettigrew pours in 25 points. He was also tasked with fighting off two of the Big Ten’s best frontcourt players basically by himself as Pattillo was saddled with foul trouble.

Time and time again this is the case with Pettigrew – and on top of that, it’s almost always against a player that’s three inches taller and 15 pounds heavier.

Now keep in mind that I didn’t get a vote, but if I had one for SBC Preseason Player of the Year, it would have undoubtedly gone to Pettigrew. And that’s not a slight to Sergio Kerusch, who himself said he’d have done the same thing.

I’ve seen just about every game he’s played since his sophomore season, and I can’t remember a time where I went away from a game thinking that he had a bad outing.

There are few players – in the country – that come to work as hard as Steffphon Pettigrew does.

So enjoy him while you’ve got him, because quite honestly, consistent effort like that just isn’t replaceable.

– What about Hofstra?

What do we know about WKU’s next opponent? Not a whole lot.

The Pride were out-manned against North Carolina on Thursday. But the UNC is the No. 8 team in the country, so we can’t take much from that.

Senior guard Charles Jenkins can really score, from just about anywhere on the court. He averaged more than 20 points per game last season and shot 40 percent from deep – he also dropped 26 on Carolina on Thursday.

This is a great opportunity for WKU to get back to the basics of focusing on defense, and working through some offensive kinks.

The Hilltoppers should be much better athletically than Hofstra, but the challenge will be playing the second game in as many days.

It’ll be interesting to see how quickly WKU washes off a poor performance from Thursday, and focuses on getting back into the swing of things tonight.





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