KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Whatever the result, the future of Western Kentucky appears bright.
Yes, the Hilltoppers fell seven points short of shocking No. 1 seed Kansas 64-57 at the Sprint Center in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
But they did so with one scholarship senior on the roster, four juniors, six sophomores and three freshmen.
The program has won consecutive Sun Belt Conference titles, won an NCAA Tournament game and gone 9-2 in the post-season under second-year coach Ray Harper.
"When you have a lot of juniors and seniors in your program, that's when some really special things can start happening," Harper said. "When you've had guys around for three, four years, they understand the process that goes into winning. That's what I'm most excited about with this group. Some of these guys, (Aleksejs Rostov), our freshman, he got a taste of it. Now my sophomores have gotten a taste of it twice. Next year should be a lot of fun."
The team's two main offensive weapons are sophomores — forward George Fant and guard T.J. Price — both of whom have claimed Sun Belt Conference Tournament Most Outstanding Player awards.
Rostov, a 6-foot-10, 225-pound freshman center, showed flashes of brilliance all season and scored 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting against the Jayhawks.
Sharp-shooter Brandon Harris will also be back, along with an incoming 6-foot-10 freshman signee Alassane Kah and two Division I transfers, Trency Jackson and Chris Harrison-Docks.
"Young man here (Fant) played awfully well, that's a sophomore," Harper said. "T.J. Price who was the most outstanding player of the tournament, that's a sophomore. We only had the one senior. So I feel good about where we're going with this program."
Harper is now 31-24 as head man for WKU basketball. His next goal will be getting the Tops in a position to claim an at-large berth to the post-season, or play well enough to garner a seed higher than 16 — a tag given to them two years in a row.
Crook's final chapter
For a player that has seen some tough times, Western Kentucky's lone scholarship senior and Louisville native Crook held his head high Friday after his final game in a WKU uniform.
"I told Jamal this might be the end of his college career, but his journey has just begun," Harper said. "He knows we'll be there every step of the way as he goes along this journey. I can remember when he came in as a freshman, he weighed 150 pounds, and how much he's grown up."
Crook finished his career with 779 points and 358 assists — fourth most in Western Kentucky history. He was the team's foremost leader on and off the court this season, and if not for a broken foot, the Hilltoppers' fortunes might have been even better.
The Tops went 17-8 with him, 3-8 without.
"I'm very proud of our guys," he said. "I'm very proud of our coaching staff. The day coach 'Harp' took over, I knew that this program was going to be taken up another notch.
"I'm interested in seeing them in the future because I know how hard these guys can work. I've been through it with them. When they're down, in the back of their heads, I know they have that fight in them ... It's unfortunate that I had to go out the way I did. But I wouldn't hang my head for anything."