A year after making an NCAA Tournament run, Western Kentucky finished 21-13 last March.
Third in the Sun Belt's East Division (12-6), the Hilltoppers didn't live up to their billing as pre-season favorite.
Heading into Friday's (non-conference) season opener at St. Joseph's (Pa.), WKU is again picked No. 1 in the East.
Ken McDonald, in his third season as coach, says that his team has potential but "there's a lot of 'ifs' with this team that we have to address."
Motivation would not seem to be an "if."
The Hilltoppers want to make up for last season's missed opportunity. They want to extend their streak of six 20-win seasons, and to live up to a tradition that includes the NCAA's eighth-best winning percentage (.673) and 14th-most victories (1,627).
McDonald sums up what he wants the trademark of his team to be with three words: teamwork, pride, toughness.
He wants those qualities to shine through on defense.
"That gives you a chance to be in the game night in and night out," he said. "We're very athletic and we're very quick ... and our depth should play a part in this year's team in a very positive way."
His message to the team: play high-level defense, you'll get plenty of action.
"We've got the potential to push tempo with our defense and actually get after people and turn some people over," McDonald said. "I think that will be a difference that people see in this year's team."
Three starters return:
■ Steffphon Pettigrew (6-foot-5 senior forward, 14.9 points per game, 5.9 rebounds, All-Sun Belt second team).
■ Sergio Kerusch (6-5 sr. fwd., 14.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, Sun Belt pre-season player of year), who missed 14 games because of a broken foot.
■ Caden Dickerson (6-4 sophomore guard, 5.9 ppg, 42.7 percent three-point shooter).
In addition, Jamal Crook (6-3, so. g., 2.2 ppg) started 18 games. Cliff Dixon (6-10 sr. fwd./center, 4.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg) played nearly 15 minutes a game.
Pettigrew, the former Mr. Basketball from Elizabethtown, has scored 1,077 points over three seasons.
"He has been so rock-solid and it makes him special to coach because you almost forget about him because he's so good in terms of his intensity, listening and trying to do the things that you ask," McDonald said. "He'll guard the center, he'll guard the point guard. He'll do whatever needs to happen in order to win."
Dickerson, pressed into action at point guard at times last season, should be free to play the No. 2 spot now.
The point now goes to Crook and Ken Brown (5-11, junior, Cerritos College).
Brown is among seven newcomers.
Three are freshmen: 6-5 Kene Anyigbo, 6-7 Stephon Drane and 6-1 Brandon Peters.
Brown and three others are transfers: 6-2 Kahlil McDonald (jr., Blinn College), 6-6 Juan Pattillo (sr., Oklahoma) and 6-11 Teeng Akol (soph., Oklahoma State). Akol, a Sudanese, won't be eligible the first semester.
Pattillo, who went to the NCAA Elite Eight with Oklahoma in 2009, had 17 points and 10 rebounds in his exhibition debut against Campbellsville. He followed that with 31 points against Xavier (La.).
"He is extremely gifted and has a lot of potential," McDonald said. "I don't know if I've been around a guy with the combination of speed, strength and athleticism that he possesses. He could be — and I'm not exaggerating — he could be the best defender in the country."
WKU's non-conference schedule includes home games against South Carolina and Louisville, trips to Vanderbilt, Memphis and Murray State, plus a first-round game against Minnesota in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament. A tough schedule with a purpose.
"We very well could be a team that loses some of these early games," McDonald said. "We can't lose confidence and sight of the goal, which has to be improvement. If we're improving each day and we're pushing each other and understanding that we've got to stay positive ... we're going to knock off our share of teams."