Ray Harper didn't need a full season to turn things around at Western Kentucky.
The Hilltoppers were 5-11 when Ken McDonald was fired and Harper graduated from assistant to head coach.
Western went 11-8 the rest of basketball season, and 7-1 after Harper had the "interim" label removed.
The 'Toppers won the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and, with that, an NCAA Tournament bid.
Western rallied from 16 points down in the last 4:51 to edge a Mississippi Valley State team coached by Sean Woods, who is now at Morehead State.
Kentucky eliminated WKU in the NCAA second round.
Western opens this season Saturday at Southern Mississippi, led by former Morehead coach Donnie Tyndall.
"Just looking forward to getting started," Harper said. "Obviously a tough schedule, but the guys are working hard and I think we've got a chance to be OK before it's all said and done."
Harper knows about getting teams to perform.
He won four national titles over 12 seasons at Kentucky Wesleyan (NCAA II) and Oklahoma City (NAIA), with five runner-up finishes. He had eight conference championships, was named national coach of the year five times and compiled an .844 winning percentage (342-63).
The common thread among his teams is attitude.
"You've got to expect to win and you've got to prepare to win," Harper said. "It's not easy. But you've got to go about your business understanding every day that you've got to come to work with an attitude that you've got to get better. We're trying to make sure we do that each and every day."
T.J. Price, a 6-foot-4 sophomore guard, says Harper's emphasis on defense is what got the Hilltoppers turned around.
"Coach Harper talked a lot about defense ... 'those who play defense are going to win the game.' " Price said. "Because last year, when Coach McDonald was the head coach, it wasn't like we were getting blown out by teams and was losing. We were actually always up first and then somehow we'll make a bad defensive play and take ourselves right out of the game."
The 'Toppers quickly learned how to finish games.
Harper prefers an up-tempo offense. The key, though, will be pressure defense.
"Philosophically, I'm a defensive-oriented guy. I think you win by playing defense and rebounding," Harper said. "Obviously you have to score points. You can not-shoot the ball well and still win, if you defend and rebound. ... Good teams, they're not going to play their best basketball every time out, but they'll find a way to beat you. And that's what we've got to do over the course of the season."
Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com