Western Kentucky finds its health at right time

03/20/2013 10:25 AM

08/06/2014 12:22 AM

If it were inclined, Western Kentucky could pause to wonder what its season had been like:

•  If the Hilltoppers hadn’t lost their projected starting small forward in September to a torn knee ligament.
•  If starting point guard Jamal Crook hadn’t broken a foot in mid-December and missed 11 games. That was compounded by the backup point missing four weeks with a bum hamstring.
•  If star shooting guard T.J. Price hadn’t sustained a high ankle-sprain and strained knee ligament in December, causing him to miss three games and struggle to get healthy for five weeks.
•  If starting guard Caden Dickerson hadn’t separated his shoulder in late November and missed 12 games.

All those injuries left the Hilltoppers trudging through a 5-12 stretch. It took winning four games in four days to claim the Sun Belt Conference Tournament title so they could reach The Dance.

Some reward.

WKU was given a 16th seed and an opening game Friday night at Kansas City’s Sprint Center against No. 1-seed Kansas.

“If we had our entire squad the entire season,” Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper said, “we may have been a little higher seed.”

Times were so slim that a walk-on freshman, Percy Blade, started five games. Two WKU football players pitched by joining the team in late December after playing in a bowl game and one, Marcus Vasquez, is still on the roster.

“We were decimated by injuries,” Harper said.

He also knows what a healthy WKU team looks like. The Hilltoppers have won seven of their last eight games, including the remarkable four-day run in the league tournament.

Yes, the Hilltoppers are looking to go where no No. 16 seed has been and beat a top seed. But keep in mind they also just became the first team to win four straight league tournament games in four days in back-to-back years.

A team that has used 16 starting lineups this year has regained its footing. Not only is everyone healthy, but Price has come back strong enough that he was named the league tournament’s most outstanding player.

“Health-wise, we’re at our best,” Harper said.

You have to figure this team learned a few things along the way, though. Like fighting through hard times, playing tired and finding a way to be hopeful.

“I do think the guys became a closer group,” said Harper, who was promoted from assistant to head coach in the middle of last season after Ken McDonald was fired. “They continued to work. We knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Price, a sophomore from Slidell, La., has helped provide that light with his 15.3-point average. George Fant, a 6-foot-6 sophomore forward, is averaging just under 13 points, while Crook is at 12 points.

All of WKU’s injuries during the season were in the backcourt, which perhaps explains why the Bowling Green school has more turnovers than assists. The Hilltoppers average nearly 16 turnovers but are still averaging almost 15 the last five games.

WKU also is young and not very big. Crook is the only senior, except for Vasquez, the walk-on football player. Starting center Aleksejs Rostov, a 6-10 freshman from Latvia, is the only one over 6-7.

But if the Hilltoppers know their school’s history, they shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by facing one of the game’s blue bloods.

WKU ranks in the top 20 in total victories (1,675) and in the top 10 in winning percentage (.665).

“We have a rich tradition,” Harper said. “There’s no secret how much people in Kentucky love their basketball.”

The Hilltoppers fall short of KU’s 42 NCAA Tournament appearances, but their 23 trips is the same number as the likes of Xavier and Maryland.

WKU, which defeated the Jayhawks in the 1971 Final Four third-place game, reached the Sweet 16 in 2008 and almost made it the next year before losing to Gonzaga on a buzzer shot.

Then there was last year, when the Hilltoppers fell to eventual national champ Kentucky 81-66 after winning a play-in game. But Harper isn’t concerned that recent history will cause his players to be wary against KU.

“Kentucky had six NBA guys on that team that we get to watch on TV,” he said.

Harper just hopes his players remember lessons learned from the run through their league tournament:

“Stay in the moment. One possession at a time. Don’t get ahead of yourselves.”

That,” Harper said, “is why we’re still playing.”

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