Western Kentucky has its third four-game losing streak since 2003 – two of which have come in the past two seasons.
While some rather brutal scheduling has plenty to do with this season’s early slump, a rash of new players, turnovers, questions of effort and paltry shooting might have more.
How does this get fixed?
Well, that’s a question for WKU coach Ken McDonald – and one he’ll continue to have to answer moving forward.
But here are a few observations from my seat.
– Pass or post – no in between.
There’s no denying that WKU senior forward Juan Pattillo is a serious athlete.
He’s been able to rebound against literally every team the Hilltoppers have played this season, he’s explosive around the basket and when he feels like it – he can defend just about anyone on the floor.
But a ball-handler and a slashing wing, he most definitely is not.
Pattillo has 28 turnovers against just eight assists this season, and the majority of those cough ups have come from his seemingly endless desire to put the ball on the deck and beat people off the dribble from 18-20 feet out.
When he’s been at his best this season, Pattillo is scoring on put backs, finishing plays on the break and attacking the basket when he’s near the lane.
When he’s been at his worst – he’s been driving into three defenders, dribbling the ball off his leg, clanging ill-advised 15 footers and basically becoming a black hole for the WKU offense when the ball touches his hands.
These struggles might come off as selfish offensive play, but Ken McDonald said following Saturday’s loss to Memphis that he has no problem with Pattillo taking the ball to the basket.
What he does have a problem with, however, is Pattillo’s recent tunnel vision to the hoop.
“I like him from 15 feet and in, but he’s got to stop turning the ball over,” McDonald said. “That takes time. They’re sending two guys at him sometimes when he gets the ball in the post, he has too many careless turnovers and we’ll watch a lot of tape to check all of those out and help him understand that he needs to get better in that area.
“Teams are starting to scout him as primarily a driver, so they stay off him a bit and primarily stay in the paint. So now he’s looking at two or three defenders when he’s trying to get to the rim and that’s tough. He has to learn his spots to get other guys shots and make other teams pay for that. I have no doubt that he’s going to continue to attack the rim at a high level.”
McDonald did admit that several of those turnovers might have something to do with the fact that WKU hasn’t had any consistent outside shooting to keep defenses honest.
A lot of Pattillo’s struggles seem to be similar to those of what Cliff Dixon went through early last season. Dixon was basically benched midway through the non-league schedule for playing too far away from the hoop, taking unnecessary dribbles and not sharing the basketball.
Pattillo’s a better athlete, and he does posses the ability to get to the rim – but it can’t be with blinders on. Because no matter how fantastic an athlete he might be, he’s never going to beat anyone going one on five.
– Keep shooting
The Hilltoppers continue to struggle to hit shots from all over the court this season, and seem to be in a team-wide funk.
First thing’s first – outside of Caden Dickerson, this group really doesn’t have too many proven outside marksmen. So any jump shot taken has got to be a good one. Something the team struggled with early, but honestly seemed to make an improvement against Memphis.
Steffphon Pettigrew might be in the biggest shooting slump of his career, and he’s acknowledged that. Pettigrew had an awful time finding a stroke against Memphis, but the senior forward said following the loss Saturday that he’s going to continue to work on his outside shot – and he’ll continue to shoot if he’s open.
“There have been times that we’ve gone one-on-one way too much, but I thought we moved the ball a lot better (against Memphis),” Pettigrew said. “I’ve been in the gym working on my shot, it looked good in shootaround but it’s just been one of those things.
“Like every good shooter does, I’m going to keep working and keep shooting – and eventually they’ll start to fall.”
It hasn’t just been outside shots that have been off, WKU missed a load of interior looks against Vanderbilt and Memphis.
Against Vanderbilt, most of those shots were just wild tosses at the rim.
But against Memphis, they were decent looks – the only problem was, they were coming against the most athletic defense the team will see all season.
Cliff Dixon had a couple of inside looks Saturday against Memphis, very similar to some shots he took and hit earlier this season against St. Josephs.
The difference Saturday though was that he was putting them up against much better defenders. It is what it is, and honestly, the big thing for a lot of these guys will be not to get discouraged.
Basically because they have no other choice, and also because those inside and outside looks that have been put up against Big Ten, SEC and CUSA opponents might be a bit easier against Sun Belt teams.
I’m not saying – but I’m just saying.
– Role definition
McDonald has talked a lot this season about the massive amount of newcomers, the inability to settle into roles early and the development of chemistry on and off the court.
This isn’t anything new, folks, in fact – it’s been sort of a common theme for McDonald’s teams during the first three-years of his tenure at WKU.
In those three seasons, 26 different players have worn Hilltopper jerseys. And when Teeng Akol presumably becomes eligible for the Murray State game next week, that number will hit 27.
The bed has been made, now it has to be slept in. Period.
It won’t get any easier next year either – as WKU expects at least five new freshmen to suit up.
But then again, that’s college basketball these days – massive roster turnover happens, and it seems to be happening more and more across the country. Whether it’s early exits to the NBA or players consistently feeling “misused” for one reason or another (valid or not) – it’s there. But that’s a much lengthier debate for another day.
As for this current group, I’m fairly certain that if players haven’t already realized their respective roles – they probably won’t.
Steffphon Pettigrew, Juan Pattillo and Sergio Kerusch are the collective backbone on both ends of the floor – that’s plain and simple.
Ken Brown and Jamal Crook need to be pass-first point guards, something they both seem to be legitimately working on.
And WKU has no other option – those two have to figure it out, or this ship will sink pretty quickly.
Caden Dickerson’s a defense stretcher, and a player that has to work to get open when the ball’s not in his hands – a job he seems perfectly comfortable with.
Cliff Dixon’s an effort guy at both ends of the floor. Something he struggled to come to grips with last season, but outside of a poor performance against South Carolina, he’s seemed to buy into that quite well this season. Stephon Drane came off the bench for the first time Saturday and seems like he could definitely fit this role as well moving forward.
Brandon Peters is a hybrid of Dixon and Dickerson. He’s on the floor to defend, to finish at the rim and to make shots when he’s open. I don’t think anyone is questioning his effort though, that’s been solid. He’s just still very green.
Kahlil McDonald has to be a carbon copy of Caden Dickerson, a role that he hasn’t seemed overly thrilled with early – as evidenced by his overall on-court frustration that led to him being left behind last weekend. That’s a role he’s got to simply take or leave – there’s really no other option for him at the moment. And if he doesn’t, it appears that the program has no qualms about moving forward without him.
At this point in the season, figuring out roles really shouldn’t be an issue.
Now, it’s about execution.
Plain and simple.
WKU’s got four more games against pretty solid competition before league play opens.
And in all honesty, I wouldn’t be shocked to see this team enter league play with a 4-8 record. The schedule is simply that unforgiving.
But with the overall athleticism and battle-tested early-season lessons, there’s no reason to think this team can’t make a serious run through the Sun Belt. Because let’s be honest here, basically every team in the Sun Belt outside of North Texas, Florida Atlantic and Arkansas State is going through the exact same thing in terms of roster turnover – and arguably with far less overall talent.
The time for talking, worrying about playing time, not playing as a team, letting egos get in the way and giving questionable effort has to be over – or this train will be on the verge of veering off the tracks from now until March.