Men's Basketball

New-look Toppers in familiar position

Visions of last season's March miracle still swirled in their minds. A new head coach was on the Hill. Their All-American was in the NBA.

So returning members of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers embarked on a new season.

By the end of their first six games, the Toppers had been blown out (28 points) at Murray State and had upset Southern Illinois, Louisville (No. 3 at the time) and Georgia.

Western eventually got the roller coaster under control and settled into its accustomed role — leading the Sun Belt Conference East.

The Toppers take a one-game lead to Troy on Saturday night, then finish the regular season with four league games. The conference tournament is March 4, 8-10.

Western's start under Coach Ken McDonald, a former assistant, was eventful, said junior guard A.J. Slaughter.

"Murray gave us a pounding (89-61)," Slaughter said. "It shook some of our confidence. Then we won those three games. It opened people's eyes on our team, and it showed we could play with anybody in the nation."

Western's 11-2 Sun Belt record is the result of team chemistry, confidence in each other and defense, Slaughter said.

"We focus on defense every day," said Slaughter, who scored a career-high 25 points against Louisville. "Whoever has the toughest defense wins."

Western is third defensively in conference games, allowing an average of 64.5 points. Troy, last in defense, leads the Sun Belt in offense, scoring an average of 76.9 points in league games.

Slaughter can hardly wait for the post-season.

"We had a great run last year, and the feeling was great," he said. "I want our new guys to experience that."

Guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez is ready, too, for a chance to show that Western is good enough to repeat as tournament champion and claim the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

"A lot of people thought we would drop below .500 with all the players we lost," he said.

"Being a senior, I wanted to go out and lead this team. We've had some good wins and some bad losses (17-7 overall), but this year has been fantastic for me. This is the way I visualized going out as a senior."

Mendez-Valdez put himself in the Western record book with the first triple-double in known school history on Jan. 1. He had 18 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in a 99-76 victory over Troy.

His next job is to help return the Toppers to the NCAA tourney.

"We probably won't get an at-large bid, so we have to take care of our business," he said.

Steffphon Pettigrew is ready to do his part. Kentucky's Mr. Basketball in 2007, he has started every WKU game except one. He averages 12.8 points, third behind Slaughter (15.9) and Mendez-Valdez (13.5).

"I'm more of a leader in scoring and rebounding," Pettigrew said. "I try to have an all-around game."

The Toppers, he says, are motivated by lowered expectations after last season.

"People have doubted that we won't have a special season," he said. "We want to prove the doubters wrong."

The Toppers haven't disappointed McDonald, who returned to Bowling Green when Darrin Horn got the South Carolina job. McDonald had been a WKU assistant for Dennis Felton from 1998-2003.

"We didn't practice well at the start of the year," McDonald said. "We had a new system, A.J. was injured, a lot of factors. Now we're playing very consistent basketball.

"Each player has settled into a different role. Everybody knows what to expect from each other."

The Hilltoppers have had a 3-1 assist-turnover ratio the past four games.

"That's the type of thing to help you get to where you want to go at this time of year," McDonald said.