So, now what?
Three things proved obvious about the Western Kentucky basketball team’s humiliating 32-point home loss to Louisville on Wednesday.
1. The team has little to no confidence
2. The team has no floor leader
3. The coaching staff has to put its foot down
Now in no way am I saying any of these three certainties are un-fixable, but at the moment, there’s not much anyone could say to make them seem untrue.
Let’s take a look at all three issues, shall we?
1. The team has no confidence
Things really couldn’t have started any better for the Hilltoppers over the game’s first 12 or so minutes Wednesday.
Kahlil McDonald had found a stroke from 3-point land, the team had responded to a few small bursts from Louisville and it was a one-point game with 7:47 to play in the half.
But a not so shocking thing happened after that: Louisville, a top 30 team in the country, started to play basketball.
The Cardinals got more aggressive on the glass, Peyton Siva began to assert himself and Louisville ripped off seven quick points to go up eight. That stretch really wasn’t a case of WKU collapsing, it was more about Louisville playing extremely efficient basketball for about a minute or so – something Rick Pitino teams have done a time or a thousand.
Both teams would then trade baskets for a minute or so, and WKU got the capacity crowd involved after an alley-oop lob from Jamal Crook to Juan Pattillo to make it a six-point game with 4:50 to go in the half.
But immediately after that play, the wheels started to come off.
Preston Knowles answered with a layup 10 seconds later. Then, Juan Pattillo missed a dunk and spent 20 seconds sulking about it under his own basket while Louisville got a putback from Chris Smith at the other end.
From there – the game was over.
For the rest of the half, the Hilltoppers went into panic mode – trying to score 10 points on every shot and over-compensating with every movement on defense.
One 3-pointer led to another, one missed shot led to another, and slowly but surely – one hanging head led to 13.
Confident teams don’t panic.
And this isn’t the first time we’ve seen that this season from the Hilltoppers.
WKU panicked early against Vanderbilt, before admittedly laying down for the rest of the day. It panicked during a second-half meltdown against Bowling Green State, before eventually hanging on for dear life in the final moments.
It panicked late against South Carolina after playing perhaps its best 40 minutes of the season.
When something goes wrong, the ‘here we go again’ attitude sets in. One turnover leads to three or four, one wide-open triple leads to 12 points.
At that point, the train comes off the tracks and there’s not much anyone can do to reel it in.
The team said all the right things coming into the game. They talked about how Louisville would surely make its runs, but when that happened, they’d be ready with a counter punch.
Well 7,000-plus people kept waiting for that return jab – but all anyone saw was one Cardinal haymaker after another.
Now I don’t know how to fix a basketball team’s confidence problem. That’s why I sit courtside with my back to the camera rather than staring straight into the lens in front of the bench.
But I do know this: A team with no confidence is a team with no leader … which brings me to the next certainty.
2. This team has no floor leader
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Or at least that’s what any motivational life-coach would have us believe.
For WKU more often than not this season, when the going’s gotten tough, the Hilltoppers start looking for the showers.
In 2008-09, Ken McDonald’s first season, the Hilltoppers were pretty up and down coming out of the gate. They knocked off a highly ranked Louisville squad, but also got pasted at Murray State and Evansville.
Fans grew restless, message boards heated up and no one quite knew what to think.
It was an early-season rollercoaster without a conductor.
But from that, Orlando Mendez-Valdez emerged – grabbed the bunch by the throat and basically mandated that when that team stepped between the lines and the ball went up in the air, he would be in charge on that floor for the next 40 minutes. Good or bad, he proved to be the unquestioned backbone for a squad that made its way into the second round of the tournament.
Even last season, when the Hilltoppers appeared to be spiraling out of control during the middle of the season, A.J. Slaughter finally came forward and took over the controls. He single-handedly beat Arkansas State twice, and carried the team to an eight-game winning streak before simply running out of gas in the Sun Belt tournament semis.
So far this season, there’s been no Mendez-Valdez, there’s been no Slaughter. There’s been nothing even close.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s still more than enough time for someone to step forward and take control on the floor. More than enough time for someone to separate themselves vocally or otherwise.
And that all starts in practice. It starts in the locker room. It starts behind closed doors. Screaming in someone’s face when the team is down 20 isn’t leadership, it’s adding to the problem.
I said before the season that I thought this team could have a competitive season under one condition: That it out-worked every opponent it played.
There’s simply not enough polished talent on the floor right now for anything else. And with no leader, out-working people becomes impossible.
Now obviously players have to play, but at the same time …
3. The coaching staff has to put its foot down
This one can’t go overlooked. No doubt about it.
Ken McDonald used the phrase ‘putting our foot down’ more than once last season with regard to ending a midseason losing streak.
But now, it might be time for the coach to do some serious stomping.
Ask yourself a few questions here.
Did anyone see Preston Knowles casually walk back down the floor after a missed layup with his hand hanging?
Did anyone see Peyton Siva break away from the offense and take ill-advised shots just because he felt like it?
Did anyone see Kyle Kuric saunter to the scorers table after being told to go check in – only to get pulled back for a lack of intensity?
Did anyone see Rakeem Buckles yelling back at Rick Pitino on the floor after being criticized after a mistake?
I absolutely didn’t.
McDonald and his staff are by and large known as player’s coaches, and to an extent, you almost have to be at this level. These are impressionable 18-22 year old kids being asked to do very grown up things.
And every kid deserves a second and sometimes even third or fourth chance to mend a mistake – a concept McDonald and his group have been than to adhere by during their stint (sometimes).
College athletics are a funny thing. You recruit a kid by selling him the moon. You tell him your vision for the program, how exactly he’ll fit into your system and how you cannot wait to put him in a uniform and let him do his thing.
There aren’t any known instances of a coach screaming at a recruit in his living room for not boxing out.
Not every kid gets to campus and becomes an All-American right out of the shoot. Roles have to be played and accepted – and if they’re not accepted, then players have to be dealt with accordingly.
When a player loafs back down the floor without a care in the world on defense, or yells back at a coach during a timeout – that player would better serve the team by selling peanuts at that moment rather than going back in the game.
McDonald’s been patient this season. He’s tried to allow the seven new bodies on the floor gel together on the court – because at the end of the day, it’s really up to them to do so.
But right now, this team’s 5-7 and just suffered one of the worst home losses in the history of the program.
The time for dealing with “personal issues” and “not living up to expectations” has to be over.
Western Kentucky fans are passionate, make no mistake. A Hilltopper team could go 28-4, and a handful of diehards would still be livid about those four defeats. Not many places have that kind of fan dedication (good or bad).
And while every fan in the building was upset with the shellacking that took place last night, plenty are likely willing to give the group another chance.
But there’s two things I’ve learned in my three short years in Bowling Green – Western Kentucky basketball fans aren’t going to tolerate attitudes that are bigger than the team and they’re not going to tolerate anyone de-valuing the privilege of putting on that uniform.
That’s probably why Steffphon Pettigrew gets the biggest cheer every time his name gets announced in Diddle Arena.
I’m sure Ken McDonald’s already brought that up to his team this season – but until all 13 players understand that, it’ll be a tough road.
This is Ken McDonald’s team, end of story.
He was hired to coach and run this program – and as of this second, he’s still got an office inside Diddle Arena. Some fans might hate that, others might be completely behind it. But none of that matters.
What does matter is that those 13 players understand it.
And whether that means benching players, taking jerseys away, making the team dress in the parking lot, or playing games in the auxiliary gym – all of the above needs to be relentlessly driven home.
I’m not saying all hope is lost – this team’s only played 12 games, none of which has been a conference tilt.
The team talked about wiping the slate clean last night – and that’s absolutely the right approach.
But erasing the board is the easy part.
What you write down going forward is the ultimate challenge.