The entirety of the 2011-12 college basketball season remains incomplete as the Sweet 16 plays out at this writing. However, while the ink is still wet, all the words are written for this version of the 2011-12 WKU Hilltoppers. Wait, make that versions of the 2011-12 WKU Hilltoppers. Looking back into the 2011-12 season, it feels as if multiple years have passed and that we saw various teams in the course of just a few months.
1. Team Reset. Beleaguered coach Ken McDonald was retained last Spring, partially because a raft of highly touted freshmen were slated to arrive on the Hill this past season. Past recruiting gambles had been hit and miss at best, but this class looked solid with highly rated players (George Fant, Derek Gordon) and under the radar steals (T.J. Price, Kevin Kaspar). The other newcomers all had potential. And, even with a bit of a snag related to summer work, they all got to campus. Whatever Ken McDonald’s legacy is (and history will not be kind), he gets some credit for recruiting a solid foundation of freshmen. While the problems with the “Team Reset” approach are well-documented, this part of Team Reset worked.
2. Team Downward Spiral. The season started with some unexpected suspensions. Once the Tops reached full strength, things went as expected for a while. The freshmen played good defense and played hard, but struggled to score (all hallmarks of this version of the Hilltoppers). Eventually, the defense faded, the offense did not improve, and losses at IUPUI and at home to Furman and FIU would keep people out of Diddle in droves. The administration fired Ken McDonald on January 6, 2012. At this stage, many were worried that the good part of the Reset (the raft of talented freshmen) would be blown apart at season’s end as well.
3. Team Interim. Ray Harper was named interim coach and while most expected solid support for Coach Harper, few expected to nearly triple attendance in two days from a pre-firing Thursday game to a post-firing Saturday game (the first of a few Harper miracles). Team Interim did not play great basketball for several games, but they played with renewed energy and fire. They lost at home to Troy, were blown out at North Texas, and were being ravaged by Denver at halftime. But, the second half at Denver is when the downward spiral ended. The Tops played a great second half, and while they still lost the game, Team Downward Spiral pulled out of the nosedive and started to improve quickly.
4. Team Restoration. The Tops came home from Denver and thrashed West Division-leading (and eventual division champ) UALR. The Tops would steadily improve, even though they kicked away a few late leads and would-be wins, as freshman-laden teams are wont to do. Support for interim coach Ray Harper swelled to tidal proportions and his hire seemed inevitable just a few weeks into his tenure. He would be named head coach on February 19, and the team then went 7-1 to close the season. Despite the youth, inexperience, and deficiencies of this team, they put together a tremendous run to close the season. This included wins over Sun Belt regular season champs Middle Tennessee on a senior night sellout in Diddle Arena as well as tourney victories over FIU, UALR, Denver, and North Texas. The Tops put icing on the cake by making the NCAA tournament and collecting a win over Mississippi Valley State before fighting admirably in a loss to overall top seed Kentucky.
So, while history will look at the season as an enigmatic one (losing season, but an NCAA win), those who lived it will likely remember the incredibly wide range of emotions experienced in 2011-12. For my part, the emotional cycle went something like this : hope, disappointment, fear, deep concern, hope, love, disbelief, joy, wild optimism. For me, the two lasting images for the 2011-12 Toppers are these: 1) the empty seats of Diddle Arena at the UL-Lafayette “6 on 5” loss, and 2) the dogpile of Toppers in a rain of confetti at midcourt after winning the Sun Belt tourney (especially senior Kahlil McDonald!).
It is impossible to rein in the optimism for next year. Of course, with so many young guys, the first question is “How many stick?” While coach Harper has to recruit new pieces, a continuing part of any head coach’s job is keeping the current guys on the roster. If that happens, and the Tops add a couple of pieces, 2012-13 expectations will run absolutely wild this summer and next fall. WKU returns everyone except senior guard and Sun Belt tourney hero Kahlil McDonald.
And, the real reason for optimism rests on more than just the roster. Ray Harper worked some magic with this team, and he did it some ways that are sustainable. Guys dropped excess weight and changed their bodies in just a few weeks. Nearly overnight, his team stopped turning the ball over so much. His team got to the free throw line a lot and made a lot of them. His team defended like crazy on the perimeter. That is an effective and sustainable identity for WKU. It is hard not to “stand up and cheer” when one thinks about how the team will look and perform with an entire offseason to develop under the “ol’ ball coach from Bremen.”
It feels like a restoration. It feels preordained. It feels right. And, truly, based on the last 15 games of 2011-12, it is more than a feeling (apologies to Boston). There is statistical and observable evidence that it is already happening. There will likely be a few setbacks along the way, but there is an air of inevitability regarding the ascension of WKU basketball.
And, we’ve only just begun.