Darius Thompson will get to do something Tuesday he probably thought never possible: Play a team coached by his father.
“He’s been coaching me since I was little and now I gotta go against him,” Thompson said. “It’s gonna be a weird experience, but a fun one at the same time. It’s kinda like bragging rights for the future for us.”
Thompson and the Hilltoppers will finish its exhibition season at 7 p.m. Tuesday when Western Kentucky hosts Cumberland University, a NAIA program out of Lebanon, Tenn., coached by Darius’ dad Lonnie Thompson.
Lonnie Thompson has been at Cumberland since 2002 where he has won 239 games and taken the Phoenix to three NAIA national tournaments. His 2003-04 team went 28-6 and lost to Oklahoma Baptist in the Round of 16.
He also led the Motlow State Community College program from 1998-2002 and was an assistant at Tennessee State, Middle Tennssee, Creighton, Odessa Junior College and South Alabama before that. When his son Darius was about 5, Lonnie remembers the moment he knew the future star had a high-level hoops IQ.
“I was coaching at Motlow Community College here in Tennessee. Darius may have been 5 years old, somewhere in that neighborhood, and I remember breaking down a tape one night,” Lonnie said. “He made a comment that kind of threw me off guard. I asked him to say it again and he said it again. It was the correct answer.
“I remember telling my wife, I said, ‘Look, I don’t know if this kid’s gonna grow up to be a basketball player, you don’t know how his body’s gonna develop, but he’s certainly gonna have a mind of a basketball player.’ He’s always been a student of the game.”
The elder Thompson graduated from Middle Tennessee in 1986 and still calls Murfreesboro, Tenn., home. That’s where Darius spent his childhood and attended Blackman High School where he was a Mr. Basketball candidate, all-state honoree and McDonald’s All American nominee as a senior in 2013.
Lonnie recalled a recruiting visit with Darius to Butler University where Brad Stevens was the head coach at the time. Stevens was also quick to pick up on the players’ knack for basketball insight.
“(Stevens) told me – Darius wanted to major in accounting – and he said, ‘Coach, he may get a degree in accounting, but I’m gonna tell you one thing, he’s gonna wind up being a coach,’ ” Lonnie said. “He said just sitting down talking with (Darius) it was the way he thinks he’s gonna wind up being a coach.
“He said, ‘I had no intention of getting into coaching either, but I got into coaching. I wouldn’t be surprised when his basketball playing days are over if Darius winds up coaching.’ That’s coming from Brad Stevens, one of the elite coaches in America.”
Darius Thompson has already proved pivotal to WKU’s play in two exhibitions thus far. The transfer from Virginia has 17 assists and five turnovers while having been tasked with leading a young and relatively inexperienced roster.
Tuesday’s matchup is the team’s final tuneup before beginning the regular season against a dangerous Missouri State team.
“Coach really just tells us every time just go out there and play as hard as you can, don’t worry about mistakes,” Darius said. “When he said that to us it just kind of gives us confidence to go up there and play hard, the young guys are going out there and playing extremely hard.
“And we’re playing together as a team, nobody’s being selfish. That’s really big for us right now. Hopefully we continue to carry that over to (Tuesday) night’s game and into the regular season.”
Cumberland has three games under its belt already, beating Oakwood University 92-78 and Martin Methodist 84-69 and losing 75-60 to Fisk University. The CU roster includes Tranard Chester and Charles Swett-Washington from Lafayette High School and Diondrey Holt from Jeffersontown High School.
Western Kentucky will try to run its winning streak in exhibition games to 26.
“It’s gonna be a unique night up there,” Lonnie said. “I’m gonna try my best not to think about it, but I’m gonna prepare my team, try to get out there and not lose by (41) points like Campbellsville. This weekend he came and watched my game. I said, ‘Hey, give me the scouting report? Ya’ll think you’re gonna beat us by 50?’ He said, ‘Nah, we’ll only beat yawl by 30.’ So that’s a compliment.
“We came up and practice Sunday so my guys can get familiar with that gym. (Darius) told me, ‘Dad, I’m gonna tell you this, I’m gonna go to the officials before the game starts and tell the official that’s my daddy, so when I start trash talking to him in the game you can’t give me a technical.’ I said I’m gonna tell the official I don’t know you.”
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop