Western Kentucky riding high after two straight NCAA berths

mmaloney@herald-leader.comNovember 11, 2013 

SBelt FIU W Kentucky Basketball

Western Kentucky's George Fant, top, shoots over Florida International's Tola Akomolafe (33) during the second half of the Sun Belt Conference championship college basketball game in Hot Springs, Ark., Monday, March 11, 2013. Western Kentucky defeated Florida International 65-63.

DAVID QUINN — ASSOCIATED PRESS

Much is expected of a Western Kentucky basketball team that has accomplished a lot in recent years.

"We feel good about the fact that we have a lot of returners, some guys who have played in two straight NCAA Tournaments," Coach Ray Harper said. "But we're still a work in progress as well. But I like this group from the standpoint they work hard and I think we have a chance to get better over the course of the year."

The Hilltoppers, who made it to the second round of the NCAA tourney last season, jump right into the fire at 1 a.m. EST Tuesday by traveling to No. 16 Wichita State. The Shockers are the first of two Final Four participants on WKU's schedule, the other being national champion Louisville.

The opener is part of the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon, also referred to as "24 Hours of Hoops."

"I think it's a great opportunity for our kids to be a part of the 24-hour marathon to kind of kick off college basketball," Harper said. "Starting at midnight (CST), that's a little tough on an old man like me. But I think our kids are excited and I think it's great for our program. It's just an opportunity, and we'll see what we do with that opportunity."

Harper is eager to see how his team will fare against what he calls "one of the toughest teams, not only physically but mentally."

"I want to see how our guys react to that. That's the type of team that we need to be. We're not going to beat teams just with our talent. It's going to come down to 'are we tough enough?' Not physically, but mentally. And when things are not going well, how are we going to react? So we'll get a great test right out of the gate and we'll move on from there."

The Toppers top returnees are T.J. Price and George Fant.

Price led Western in scoring last season with 15.2 points a game, while shooting 35.8 percent from three-point range.

Fant was second in scoring at 12.8 points and led the team with 6.6 rebounds.

Western is the favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference, according to a pre-season coaches' poll.

"I'm not sure our guys know they were picked to win the league by the coaches," Harper said. "I know they're aware of the fact they were picked fourth and fifth by a lot of polls. And I think that speaks to the balance of the league this season. It's as balanced and as deep as at any time that I've been a part of the Sun Belt.

"It's one of those situations where you don't want to get caught up in whether you're picked first or last. The game's going to be won on the court and it's going to be about who gets better over the course of the season. Again, I look at this league and there's about six or seven teams that can win the league, I think."

SCOUTING REPORT

Coach: Ray Harper (31-24 entering his third season at WKU, 373-87 in his 15th season overall)

Last season: 20-16 overall, 10-10 Sun Belt Conference (fourth in East)

What to watch: One concern Harper has is for someone to "emerge as a leader."

"They do it more by committee, and we need a leader on this basketball team. Someone's got to emerge out of the shadows and be that guy. If we can find that guy to do that, we'll be OK."

Pre-season all-conference picks T.J. Price and George Fant finished 1-2 in scoring on last season's team, and Fant also led in rebounds.

Other returning starters are senior guard Brandon Harris and sophomore center Aleksej Rostov.

In all, WKU returns 73.8 percent of its scoring and 68.7 of its rebounding from last season. Seven of the top eight scorers return, and five of the top six rebounders.

As for the newcomers, Harper says he thinks all will contribute but, "from day one, probably Aaron Adeoye would be the guy. But Payton Hulsey's been tremendous; he has the potential to be a starter for us at some point. And you've got to look at the two guys that get eligible second semester in Chris Harrsion-Docks and Trency Jackson. I think both those guys could be starters by the time we get to the conference play."

The Hilltoppers lost Jamal Crooks to graduation but are nevertheless well stocked at point guard.

"I think we're deeper than at any time since I've been at WKU at the point guard position," Harper said. "We've got Brandon Harris, who's had a great summer. He played a lot at the point last year, but he's really taken the next step. The guy that's been the most pleasant surprise is our walk-on, Brandon Price. He was our leading scorer in our first exhibition game. A tremendous player.

"We've got Payton Hulsey, a freshman, 6-5, also a point guard. Kevin Kaspar, who started some as a freshman and sophomore at the point guard position. And then you throw in Chris Harrison-Docks in when he becomes eligible. So we've got options. We can go small and quick. We can go big. We can (go) more of a scoring point guard, more of a passing point guard. So I like the versatility that we have in that position."

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