By NICK BAUMGARDNER
The Daily News
Wednesday, March 9, 2011 11:12 AM CST
With what Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald described as an “unacceptable” season now in the books, the biggest question for the Hilltopper basketball program becomes “now what?”
The future seems to be up in the air after a 16-16 season ended with WKU’s 81-62 loss to North Texas on Monday in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament semifinals.
WKU athletic director Ross Bjork declined to comment on the season, the program or McDonald’s status with the university immediately after Monday’s game. Bjork opted to wait until he’s had his season-ending meeting with McDonald, which could happen as soon as week’s end.
The review – which Bjork conducts with all Hilltopper athletic coaches after their seasons – is likely to touch on everything; from the Hilltoppers’ 16-16 record, their struggles in conference play, the team’s chemistry issues, academics and the plan for the program moving forward.
Fan unrest and low attendance have increased frustration and led to public speculation about McDonald’s future with the team. He’s still in charge of the program, and says he intends to get right to work on fixing everything that went wrong in 2010-11.
“I really feel like there’s a bright future,” McDonald said after the loss to UNT. “I know the guys we have coming in, along with who we have returning – we’re going to get to work right away. We’re going to continue to work with them and get them ready to raise the bar.
“This was not typical of what a Western Kentucky basketball team is going to be like.”
McDonald admitted to mistakes this season, saying that he may have been guilty of putting together too difficult a schedule for a team that featured seven new players to start the year. WKU began the season with a 5-11 record, and an 0-4 start to Sun Belt Conference play for the first time in the school’s history.
In December, the third-year coach dismissed junior point guard Ken Brown for a violation of a team academic policy.
Before that, McDonald opted to leave guard Kahlil McDonald off the trip for a Dec. 4 game at Memphis, saying the junior guard needed to “refocus” after off-court frustrations.
Days after a 114-82 home loss to Louisville, the team announced that freshman guard Brandon Peters had been ruled academically ineligible for the remainder of the season by the NCAA – trimming an already thin roster.
The final off-court blow came in mid-February, when senior forward Cliff Dixon did not return to the bench after halftime during a home game against North Texas – instead watching the second half in street clothes from the stands. The next day, McDonald announced that Dixon had been dismissed from the team due to a “violation of team rules.”
“We have to win the fans back,” McDonald said Monday. “I think we won some back because I think we played with a whole lot more heart and toughness after December.
“There’s still work to do and I think it’s going to be everybody’s job to raise the bar.”
McDonald’s record at WKU sits at 62-38 in three seasons, but each year’s record has been worse than the previous. The Hilltoppers will also have to replace more than 60 percent of their scoring and rebounding with the departure of seniors Steffphon Pettigrew, Juan Pattillo and Sergio Kerusch.
McDonald has signed five highly touted high school seniors for his 2011 class, but the 2011-12 Hilltoppers will be short on experience.
Through all the turmoil and public speculation, McDonald didn’t sound like a coach who had managed his final game at WKU on Monday, saying he feels he’s a better coach now than he was when he was hired after an assistant coaching run at Texas three years ago.
But the question of “now what?” will have to be answered sooner rather than later for the Hilltoppers.
“To think about how far this team has come from December, where it was bleak, we were really in a hole,” McDonald said. “Partly because of me over-scheduling and not coaching these guys up to my ability – we were in such a bad mental state at that point, it was very negative because we were 5-11.
“And for them to come back and be in every game says a lot about these seniors, the newcomers and the coaching staff buckled down and tried to do what we could do. And the players did that and it says a lot about them.”