Men's Basketball

WKU AD well aware of fans' unease with men, women's hoops

Ken McDonald began his third season at Western Kentucky with his team picked to win its division and guard Sergio Kerusch, right, as pre-season Player of the Year. The Toppers are 5-11.
Ken McDonald began his third season at Western Kentucky with his team picked to win its division and guard Sergio Kerusch, right, as pre-season Player of the Year. The Toppers are 5-11. AP

Western Kentucky University Athletics Director Ross Bjork has been paying extra attention to the men's and women's basketball programs this winter.

Bjork, eight months into his job, has watched two of the athletics department's benchmark programs struggle on the court.

That's led to outright discontent with the men's program among a significant faction of Western fans.

WKU was picked to win the Sun Belt Conference's East Division, but instead is mired in a six-game losing streak. The Hilltoppers were 5-11 overall and, worse yet, 0-4 in conference play heading into Thursday night's game at South Alabama.

Most of the fans' dissatisfaction appears directed at head coach Ken McDonald, who is in his third season on the Hill. Bjork acknowledges there are people in Bowling Green who want McDonald fired.

"There's the gamut, from 'you've got to do something now, you've got to end this situation now,' to, again, 'we support the university no matter what. This is tough, but we're behind the administration, we're behind the players, we're behind the coaches,'" Bjork said. "It runs the spectrum in terms of feedback, but people are disappointed, and we acknowledge that and we appreciate their passion."

Stories have swirled in Bowling Green about player discord and a general lack of chemistry on and off the court.

Bjork has made spending time around the men's basketball team a priority so he can make his own assessment.

"I spend a lot of time around our practices and around the locker room, and (Monday) they were going hard, they were up and down the court, working hard," Bjork said. "Guys were energetic, flying around. You see that in practice, and the confidence factor has to have a carryover to the game."

Bjork had previously addressed the men's basketball situation and McDonald's place in it following Western's 78-73 loss to Florida Atlantic last Saturday at E.A. Diddle Arena; specifically, he was asked if McDonald would be the coach until the end of the season.

He remained committed to his position during an interview with the Messenger-Inquirer on Tuesday.

"I'll be consistent with what I said, and that's I'm worried about how the (players) feel after (Saturday's) game," Bjork said. "They tried, they played hard, but we got beat. I'm worried about how we respond against South Alabama, then Saturday night against Troy at home."

Bjork, 37, is the youngest athletics director among the 120 members of the Football Bowl Subdivision.

The former senior AD at UCLA has been constantly on the go since starting his job in Bowling Green on April 26.

While focused on the direction of all WKU athletic teams, circumstances have dictated basketball currently receiving the bulk of his attention.

The lack of success of the men's program has garnered more headlines, but the women's program has seen its win totals decline in recent years, and that slide has continued this season.

While the Lady Toppers have been to the NCAA Tournament three times since 2000 — which was the last time they advanced past the first round — they haven't gone since the 2008 season.

Led by head coach Mary Taylor Cowles, one of the icons of Lady Topper basketball, having been a star player and assistant coach there, the Lady Toppers have posted a 7-11 overall mark, 4-2 in the Sun Belt Conference.

"It's the same type of thing (as with the men), we're disappointed with our overall record," Bjork said. "But we are 4-2 in the Sun Belt, so we're making strides there. Our non-conference schedule was ranked fifth-toughest in the country. We played a mountain of a schedule."

The Lady Toppers' non-conference slate included Duke, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Vanderbillt.

"I'm confident in Mary," Bjork said. "There's no one that knows more about our program and what it takes to win than Mary. If we can finish strong in our conference play, we will see what happens there."

Bjork's evaluation of Cowles' performance appears to be a less pressing concern than of McDonald's.

"Not that we're taking Ken McDonald's career game-by-game, but we have to evaluate what's best for this program, and we have to stay in that moment," Bjork said. "We have to get better against South Alabama, then we have to move to Troy, then whoever we're playing next week, then we take it from there."

Bjork, however, realizes there could be tough decisions to be made when this basketball season is through.

"You've got to be real with where we're at, but you also have to be professional about what's best for the program and our student-athletes," he said.

Bjork said he does understand why fans are frustrated with the program's performance, which, in addition to being the pre-season favorite, included the Hilltoppers having the pre-season Player of the Year in Sergio Kerusch.

"Our program is not built on moral victories against FAU," Bjork said. "We should do better than that, that's why we're disappointed, that's why our fans are disappointed, our coaches are disappointed and our players are disappointed.

"They know our program is too good to be in this spot. We have too much history, too much legacy to be in this spot. They have to work hard, we have to work hard every single day to get out of this. The only way we can do it is to keep working. Once you give up, you're in trouble."

Bjork said Hilltopper fans should not give up on this team.

"It's like a round of golf," he said. "We've played four holes, relating it to conference play, we've got 14 more to go. We're not just going to walk off the course after bogeying the first four holes. We're going to keep playing the round.

"That's what we have to instill in our student-athletes and our coaches. They know it's challenging. They know there's a ton of pressure to do well. We signed up for it, now we have to find a way to get out of it."