With Season Approaching, WKU Basketball Regroups Under McDonald

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (AP) -- A.J. Slaughter pulls out the tape every now and then and pops it in, ready to hear the cheers and feel the goose bumps wash over him one more time.

Six months after Western Kentucky's breathtaking run to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the memories remain as fresh as ever. Ty Rogers' game-winning 3-pointer at the horn to beat Drake in the first round. The late run to finish off San Diego in the second. The stirring rally against powerful UCLA in the regional semifinal that came up just short.

The show never gets old.

"We were filming each other off the court, just trying to enjoy the experience, it's a once in a lifetime feeling," said the junior guard.

Well, to be honest, Slaughter hopes those kinds of moments come around a little more often than that. Looking back, Slaughter doesn't see last year's success -- a 29-7 record and a Sun Belt Conference championship -- as the top of the mountain for one of the country's most consistent mid-major powers.

"I don't think guys are ready to settle just because we made the Sweet 16 last year," Slaughter said. "If it did anything it made us hungrier to get back this year. We know what we have to do."

They'll have to do it without the major pieces that guided the Hilltoppers to their best season in 15 years. Do-everything guard Courtney Lee is gone, off to the NBA's Orlando Magic. Coach Darrin Horn bolted for South Carolina after a spectacular five-year run at his alma mater in which the Hilltoppers averaged 22 wins a season.

Ken McDonald, an assistant at WKU under former coach Dennis Felton takes over for Horn and promises to keep the up-tempo style that has long been the program's trademark.

McDonald's energetic style plays in stark contrast to the more disciplined Horn. The 38-year-old stood at the podium moments after taking his first head coaching job in April and started waving a red towel, whooping it up for the locals.

He hasn't stopped since. McDonald's eagerness to get involved can occasionally spill over in practice, where the former forward at Providence College will insert himself into a drill in an attempt to get his players' attention.

"Sometimes I've got to remind myself I'm the head coach," said McDonald, who spent the last four years at Texas before joining the Hilltoppers. "I get into it."

The Hilltoppers will need to draw from their coach's enthusiasm as it navigates a brutal nonconference schedule that includes games against No. 3 Louisville, Southern Illinois, Georgia, Houston, Florida State and Mississippi State.

A year ago, a similarly ambitious schedule didn't turn out to be a problem. But with three starters and 60 percent of last year's scoring gone, WKU will have to find new ways to win.

"We're not going to be the most talented team on the floor, most times out," McDonald said. "We're not going to be the tallest. We're not going to be the most athletic. We're not going to be the quickest, but we better be the toughest and we better be the best team in terms of staying together."

Much of the responsibility will fall on Slaughter, fellow guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez and senior forward Jeremy Evans. The lean, 6-foot-9 Evans spent the last two years as an energy guy who got most of his points off garbage buckets or in transition. For the Hilltoppers to compete in the Sun Belt he'll have to refine his low post game and do something that usually isn't a problem for most players: look to shoot the ball.

More than once during practice McDonald has blown the whistle and ordered the team to run when Evans passed up an easy shot while looking for an open teammate. But Lee, Rogers and Tyrone Brazelton, who carried the Hilltoppers to the tournament on a barrage of 3-pointers, are gone.

McDonald's message to Evans is simple: put it up. A lot.

"He needs to see himself in a bigger light and we have to try to get him there," McDonald said.

One player McDonald won't have to persuade to put it up is Slaughter. He spent two seasons watching Lee get comfortable with taking almost every big shot despite playing against defenses designed to slow him down. McDonald has done his best to challenge Slaughter, and the soft-spoken kid from Shelbyville -- about 2 hours from Bowling Green -- has responded.

"He's just at a different level right now," McDonald said.

Slaughter proved it during a late-game simulation drill recently. Three times McDonald put the ball in Slaughter's hands with a couple of seconds left. Each time he knocked down the game-winner, the last one coming from 30 feet out.

It's the kind of shot Slaughter says he's been waiting to take his whole life, the kind of shot that he hopes helps the Hilltoppers make some fresh memories this spring.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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