Men's Basketball

Mark Story: WKU basketball not all it should be

Western Kentucky fired head coach Ken McDonald on Friday after the Hilltoppers' 11th loss of the season.
Western Kentucky fired head coach Ken McDonald on Friday after the Hilltoppers' 11th loss of the season. AP

Butler has played in back-to-back NCAA title games. George Mason and VCU have both played in a Final Four since 2006.

Gonzaga and Xavier have become perennial residents of bracket-ville each March.

There has never been a better time to be an elite "mid-major" basketball program.

Which makes the dismal standing of Western Kentucky University men's basketball — which hit a low point with the mid-season sacking of embattled head coach Ken McDonald on Friday — seem like such a frustrating missed opportunity.

"That's exactly what Western fans and Western alumni have been saying for the last couple of years now," said Wes Strader, who spent 36 years was WKU's radio play-by-play man and is now in his fourth season hosting pre- and post-game talk shows around Hilltoppers' games.

In terms of basketball tradition (deep), facilities (plush) and fan interest (potentially robust), Western should have everything it takes to capitalize on this era when schools from outside the so-called super six conferences (the football BCS leagues) can aspire to consistent NCAA Tournament glory.

Instead, WKU (5-11 at the time of the coaching change) seems well on its way to missing the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year.

What separates Western from schools like Butler and Xavier is easy to analyze.

Where BU and X have been remarkably adept at hiring one successful coach after another, WKU coaching hires have, for decades now, been remarkably hit-or-miss.

Clem Haskins succeeded at WKU and left for Minnesota.

Murray Arnold flamed out at Western and was fired after four years.

Ralph Willard succeeded at WKU and left for Pittsburgh.

Matt Kilcullen flamed out at Western and was fired during his fourth year.

Dennis Felton succeeded at WKU and left for Georgia.

Darrin Horn succeeded at WKU and left for South Carolina.

McDonald flamed out at Western and was fired during his fourth year.

Compare Western Kentucky's spotty track record of coaching hires to those of Xavier and Butler.

Going back to 1985, Xavier has hired Pete Gillen (72.9 winning percentage), Skip Prosser (69.5), Thad Matta (77.2), Sean Miller (71.9) and current coach Chris Mack (72.8).

Not a coaching miss among them.

Butler replaced Barry Collier (59.8) with Matta (75.0) followed by Todd Lickliter (68.2) and current coaching wunderkind Brad Stevens (79.6 in his fifth season).

Not a coaching miss among them.

Why is Western's long-term history of hiring coaches who succeed so much more hit-or-miss than schools like Butler and Xavier?

"Real good question," Strader said. "One thing might be, (Western hasn't) been hiring proven head coaches. They've been hiring assistant coaches, instead of going with the veteran guys with a proven track record of getting it done."

Former Kentucky Wesleyan head man Ray Harper, the coach that WKU President Gary Ransdell and Athletics Director Ross Bjork named to replace McDonald on an interim basis Friday, is a veteran of sitting in the head coaching chair.

In fact, Harper has won national championships at both Kentucky Wesleyan (NCAA Division II) and Oklahoma City (NAIA).

A one-time high school basketball star in Muhlenberg County, Harper is well-known and popular in the western part of the state.

If WKU and its freshman-heavy roster rights the ship and plays well down the stretch, there figures to be much public support for giving Harper the 'Toppers head coaching job full-time.

Should that not happen, names like Morehead State head man Donnie Tyndall, Florida assistant John Pelphrey and Louisville aide Richard Pitino could be among those linked with WKU.

What should not be in doubt is that in this glory era of mid-major (a term people in Bowling Green loathe, by the way) college basketball, Western with the right coach should be able to do the kinds of things Gonzaga and Xavier routinely achieve.

At this point, Western's ancient Ohio Valley Conference rival, No. 18 Murray State, has passed by the Hilltoppers.

"Traditionally, there have been three great basketball programs in this state — the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville and Western Kentucky," Strader said. "Right now, the great teams are at UK, U of L and Murray State. That's hard for Western people to take, it really is."