So Ken McDonald is back.
But anyone confusing Monday’s news conference as an affirmation that “all is well” with Hilltopper basketball had best think again.
All is not well – that much can be proven by the fact that it took WKU athletic director Ross Bjork a full week to wrangle with the decision of “should I or shouldn’t I” with regard to releasing or retaining McDonald.
All is not well on the court at the moment – and furthermore, all is not well in the stands either.
But we’ll get to that in a second.
First the program itself. McDonald’s admission to recruiting mistakes in the past was basically a clearing of the air with something we already knew – WKU has had 10 players leave the program in three years before exhausting their eligibility.
That’s nearly an entire team. And if that weren’t the case, we likely wouldn’t have been sitting in that media room yesterday.
When asked yesterday how he intends to fix that problem, McDonald said he has
a plan – and it involves recruiting players with character that put a value on being a student-athlete above all else. It also involved making kids understand that very rarely do players enter a college program and play 38 minutes per game – regardless of what an AAU says should happen.
The Hilltoppers have had trouble putting together consistent stretches of effort over the past two seasons – something anyone watching the team could also see. As WKU hit a slump in 2009-10 and started 5-11 in 2010-11.
When asked how that part gets fixed, he said he has a plan for that as well, and plenty of that has to do with character and pride. Something the staff – and the WKU administration – feels it has with the 2011 recruiting class. A group that currently features five high school seniors that publicly all seem excited to play together, and play at WKU.
Both important factors that can’t go overlooked.
McDonald also apologized for any personal matters he’s encountered over the past two seasons that have gotten in the way of him performing his job.
He candidly spoke about his divorce, something I can’t and won’t even pretend to understand – as I’m not him, and I’m not about to sit back and throw Internet stones at someone just for the sake of doing so. I’m not going to get into personal rumor mongering (and trust me, I’ve forgotten more than you’ve heard). It’s in no way my job. I don’t work at TMZ – at least not yet.
Should personal matters have gotten in the way of him performing his job? One thousand times no.
Should he have had to get up in front of a microphone and lay it out on the table? Frankly, I didn’t think so. But that was his decision.
There was also the overall organizational factor – something the program has no doubt struggled with under McDonald. That much can be seen on the court.
I asked what needed to be changed there, and didn’t exactly get a concrete answer – just that expectations needed to be raised, and that he and his staff would approach next season as if they had just been hired a handful of months earlier.
As far as Bjork’s decision to retain McDonald and company, well, that’s a toughie.
I think by now everyone knows both sides of that coin, and over the past few months I’ve thought about both sides and simply come to the conclusion that every time I discuss it, I end up talking myself in a circle.
The negatives are obvious: His record has gotten worse in each of his three seasons, he’s struggled over the past two years in a conference that has officially hit its rock bottom point in men’s basketball and the off-court attrition was seemingly endless this past season.
Academics can’t be ignored either, as Ken Brown’s dismissal from the team this year and Brandon Peters’ shortened season were both a result of classroom failures.
There’s the argument that he hasn’t been able to win with his own players – as McDonald’s best season (his first) came with a roster filled mostly with bodies that he didn’t recruit.
And then there’s the recruiting miscues – to me the biggest problem of all. Players like Terrence Boyd and David Laury, freshmen signees that were gambles in the first place that never even saw the floor.
In McDonald’s perfect world, his starting five for next season might have looked something like this:
PG: Ken Brown (Sr.), SG: Caden Dickerson (Jr.), F: Terrence Boyd (Jr.), F: Jordan Swing (Jr.) F: David Laury (Jr.).
As we all know, four of those five don’t exist – and now, the Hilltoppers will (like it or not) have to rely on some very inexperienced players moving forward.
There’s no question the 2011 group is a strong class – but they’re
That won’t be easy.
But when asked how McDonald will be judged next season, Bjork basically said Monday that it won’t only be on wins and losses. Saying that improvement in all of the other problem areas will be just as important – and one would think that if the 2011-12 team sells out, buys in, goes to class and does everything right, then it could wind up being a competitive group (even as youngsters) that could be fun to watch.
But those are all ifs.
As far as Bjork’s case for keeping McDonald, well, that’s all based on pure facts. And you can’t deny facts.
McDonald has 62 wins in three seasons, four less than John Oldham in his first three years as coach.
Thirty-four coaches were hired for jobs in 2008 – and only five have 60 wins. McDonald is one of those five.
WKU has more conference wins in the past three years than any other league school. It played without Sergio Kerusch for a better part of the 2009-10 season, McDonald’s had four first-team All-Conference players in three years, and an NBA Draft pick.
And then there’s the recruiting class – five high school seniors that combined to make arguably the best class WKU has ever inked during the recruit ranking era.
The schedules he’s played have not been easy. In fact, he’s been guilty of over-scheduling. And after hearing plenty of griping before McDonald got to campus about how the Hilltoppers didn’t challenge themselves enough in the non-conference season – I really don’t see how anyone can complain about that.
All those facts are nice, and they can all be debated up and down the street – but
they’re still facts.
I’m not a believer in any way that McDonald was kept to avoid a buyout – simply because he’s under a new, revised four-year contract. And if he’s removed before that deal ends, the school still has to pay said buyout. And in case you were wondering, WKU told me today that the buyout is still set at $300,000.
The biggest fact of all is the three-year window.
Bjork says he didn’t think three seasons was enough time to judge a coach. Period. That was the core basis for his argument. And while I’m not totally sold on that notion, I would agree that it might be difficult to interview a prospective replacement after you just ran off a coach with 62 wins (who never suffered a losing year) after just three seasons.
As for the fans in the stands? That might be the biggest issue of all for Bjork and McDonald.
There are no doubt a number of season ticket holders who have declared that they wouldn’t renew their packages if McDonald was retained – I know this because I’ve had some of them tell me so.
There are also a number of fans that have said they’re not happy with McDonald and the way things have gone, and wouldn’t have been opposed to a change, but would still be in the stands next season regardless – because that’s something they’ve always done. Again, I know because some of those people have told me so.
Then there’s the swing fans. The fans that might live a few hours away from Diddle and don’t see any reason to come watch a team go through a slump. I mean gas isn’t cheap, gang, we all know that. These are the people I really won’t expect to see in Diddle when next season begins. But they are the same people that may well likely show back up midway through the season if progress starts to be made.
I’ve gotten to know more Hilltopper fans than I can count in four years – and I know this: They will get behind a winner. Anything else, it’s up in the air.
They’ll also get behind a team that plays hard. A team that has pride and a team that embraces each other on the floor, rather than spends time bickering on the sideline.
The fans are loud, they’re opinionated, they sometimes seem extremely irrational and a bit off kilter – but they’re big time fans. Fanatics if you will.
WKU basketball is extremely fortunate that an average attendance number just below 4,000 was seen as an embarrassment. Travel around the Sun Belt with me next season and I’ll prove that point to you.
But nothing speaks louder than attendance. And for WKU standards, less than 4,000 per game last season was terrible.
The fanbase is split– and there’s nothing any reset button can do to give that an immediate fix.
The only way that gets fixed is by scoring more than the other team more often than not.
The only way all becomes well again is by proving it between the lines.
The only way a reset button really works – in my experience with Nintendo – is what you do with the extra chance you’ve been given to play.
Time will tell what McDonald does with his 1UP – and I suspect we won’t have to wait very long to find out the answer to that question.
The 2011-12 season will tip in November.