As a sophomore last season, Jamal Crook got 17 starts at point guard for Western Kentucky University, including the last 12 games.
During that stretch, Crook averaged 4.8 assists, had back-to-back nine-assist outings and, against Florida International, a 10-assist game.
"From his freshman year, I was really hoping he could take over the position," Coach Ken McDonald said. "I think he's really talented. He's fast. He can create shots for others. He's got great length. He's got the energy on defense; he can really cause problems for the other team. I've challenged him to be that focused and that good all the time now, because I've seen him do it."
After a 5-11 start last season, the Hilltoppers closed 11-5 to finish at .500.
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"Absolutely one of the biggest keys to our turnaround ... was because of Jamal," McDonald said. "He had incredible energy and he got our fast break going. And on defense, when we were good, he was out there being aggressive."
A 6-foot-3, 175-pounder, Crook played high school ball for Ballard through his junior year. He went to a Maine prep school, Bridgton Academy, for his senior season.
During Christmas break, he visited his brother Gibran, also a student at Western. The brothers went to a WKU game, and Jamal knew that's where he wanted to play.
As a freshman, he averaged 2.2 points, 1.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists. Last year, he improved to 3.6 points, 2.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists (fifth in the Sun Belt).
Now, he finds himself as one of the more experienced Hilltoppers. WKU lost 66 percent of its scoring from last season and 64.8 percent of rebounding. McDonald brought in a highly regarded class of recruits. The nine newcomers include seven freshmen.
The coach wants his veterans, especially Crook, to lead.
"His attitude, his game — he's a very consistent mid-range shooter now. That's been up and down in the past, but he's worked on it," McDonald said. "He's being very vocal with his teammates, which is important because you've got two years of experience. You'd better use that and help this new crop of guys understand the level and be ready to mentor them."
Asked what he's looking forward to this season, the first things Crook mentions is seeing the newcomers step up and helping them to do so.
He says his improvement stems from "maturity and just watching film and learning from my mistakes."
After coming on late last season, he aims to be ready from the get-to this time. The Hilltoppers open their season Friday against Saint Joseph's.
Western has a proud basketball tradition. The Hilltoppers rank 14th in NCAA history in wins, eighth in winning percentage, sixth in 20-win seasons and third in conference titles. But WKU hasn't played in the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons.
"Definitely," Crook said when asked if this is the year WKU gets back on track. "We really don't have a choice but to get back on track, I think. We also want to put some banners up."
Coach: Ken McDonald (62-38 in three seasons)
Last season: 16-16 overall, 8-8 Sun Belt Conference (third in East)
What to watch: Point guard Jamal Crook and shooting guard Caden Dickerson (38.8 percent three-point accuracy) are the only returning starters. Another guard, Kahlil McDonald, played in 31 games. The Hilltoppers have one of their more highly regarded recruiting classes in years, though. Seven are freshmen.
Coach Ken McDonald says his team will be "a work in progress" — the latter word being the key. "What I'm looking for is the effort, the intensity and start to really get a feel for execution and how good we can be," the coach said of early-season tests. "We're forming our identity on the defensive end."
Look for the Hilltoppers to push the ball, looking for easy transition baskets. WKU will play pressure defense, mostly man-to-man, and press on occasion. The coach says that all his newcomers have a chance to contribute.
Most impressive in the pre-season, though, have been 6-2 guard Derrick Gordon, 6-3 guard T.J. Price and a pair of 6-5 forwards: George Fant and Nigel Snipes. After last season, Ken McDonald's contract was revised, including a $100,000 pay cut. He says "I'm ecstatic to be the head coach at WKU, and I'm glad that my athletic director has the confidence that I'm the guy for the job. Now it's time to turn the page and move forward full-throttle."
One thing that shouldn't distract the Hilltoppers is Twitter. The coach has banned his players from tweeting. "When you think about it, it is 'so not important.' Our guys have been great since we actually shut that down," Ken McDonald said. "You can pick up the paper every single day and find somebody that probably wishes they could take back what they tweeted or Facebooked or whatever, and we're not going to be in that category."
Conference: Sun Belt
Coach: Ken McDonald
Last season: 16-16 (8-8 SBC)
No. Name Pos. Ht. Yr. Hometown
0 Kene Anyigbo F 6-5 So. Bellaire, Texas
1 Kevin Kaspar G 6-0 Fr. Istanbul, Turkey
3 Kahlil McDonald G 6-3 Sr. Brooklyn, N.Y.
5 Derrick Gordon G 6-2 Fr. Plainfield, N.J.
10 Caden Dickerson G 6-4 Jr. Argyle, Texas
11 Spence Sheldon G 5-11 Fr. Bowling Green
14 Jamal Crook G 6-3 Jr. Louisville
15 O'Karo Akamune F 6-6 So. Miami, Fla.
21 Nigel Snipes F 6-5 Fr. Marietta, Ga.
22 Teeng Akol F/C 6-11 Jr. Wian, Sudan
24 Stephon Drane F 6-7 So. Raleigh, N.C.
41 Vinny Zollo F 6-8 Fr. Winchester
44 George Fant F 6-5 Fr. Bowling Green
52 T.J. Price G 6-3 Fr. Slidell, La.
Nov. 5—x-Xavier (La.), 7:30; 11—ST. JOSEPH'S, 7; 14—TENNESSEE ST., 7; 17—a-Tulsa, 11:30 a.m.; 18—a-TBA; 20—a-TBA; 23—VA. COMMONWEALTH, 7; 26—SOUTHEASTERN LA., 7
Dec. 1—MURRAY ST., 7; 4—BOWLING GREEN ST., 2; 7—at Southern Ill., 7:05; 10—at IUPUI, 6; 17—FURMAN, 7; 23—at Louisville, 6; 29—at La.-Monroe, 7:30; 31—FLA. INTERNATIONAL, 1
Jan. 5—LA.-LAFAYETTE, 7; 7—TROY, 4; 12—at North Texas, 7; 15—at Denver, 2; 21—ARK.-LITTLE ROCK, 1; 26—at Fla. Atlantic, 6; 28—at Fla. International, TBA
Feb. 4—SOUTH ALA., 7; 9—at Middle Tenn., 7; 11—at Troy, 1; 16—FLA. ATLANTIC, 7; 18—at South Alabama, 7:05; 23—ARKANSAS ST., 7; 25—MIDDLE TENN., 7
x-exhibition; a-Charleston Classic at Charleston, S.C.; b-Sun Belt Conference Tournament