Bowling Green, Ky. — The Kentucky-Indiana All-Star Series is an event steeped in tradition that many Western Kentucky University basketball players have had the opportunity to experience — five current Hilltoppers have represented their home state in the last four years.
The list will grow by one on Saturday when Steffphon Pettigrew, this season’s Kentucky Mr. Basketball and one of three members of WKU’s incoming recruiting class, makes his E.A. Diddle Arena debut.
And if past experience is any indication, Pettigrew should be in for a warm greeting from the Hilltopper faithful who will be in the crowd for the first of two games in this summer’s series.
“He’s going to get one of the biggest ovations he has probably ever experienced in his life” says Matt Maresca, one of four Toppers to take part in the event in the summer of 2004. “When we played in Owensboro I thought that was big, but playing in Diddle Arena and being Mr. Basketball, he’s going to get a huge welcome to WKU cheer that I think he is really going to enjoy.”
A.J. Slaughter, who represented Kentucky last summer when the game was played at Diddle Arena, offers a better perspective of what Pettigrew can expect. “I think he is going to be surprised with the way the fans are going to react when he is introduced. He’ll probably get goose bumps, but I’m sure it will feel good.
“If they went wild when they called my name, then it will be huge for him since he’s Mr. Basketball.”
If Pettigrew responds like Slaughter to the Diddle Arena environment, WKU fans are going to have a lot to cheer about. Slaughter finished with 21 points in the meeting in Bowling Green last summer, going 6-of-10 from the floor while adding four rebounds and two steals.
Courtney Lee, the only current Topper who played for Indiana in the series, adds that with WKU fans it doesn’t matter who you play for in the series if you’re coming to the Hill. “It will be a good experience for Steffphon — he’ll get a chance to see what it’s like to play in Diddle Arena and see how good our crowd is. When they called my name in the starting lineup, there was nice applause. It seemed like it went on for five minutes.”
The fans also had reason to applaud after the game at the Owensboro Sportscenter. Lee put together a 28-point performance in that contest, collecting seven rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals.
Pettigrew will wear the No. 1 jersey after being selected Mr. Basketball following a season which saw him average better than 33 points and 13 rebounds per game for Elizabethtown High School. Earning the biggest honor in the Commonwealth and those numbers would be enough to garner the support of the Kentucky team’s fans this weekend, but with his impending arrival to play for the Hilltoppers in the fall he has been schooled on what to expect from both WKU players and coaches.
“They have told me that I will probably get a standing ovation before the first game. I’m hoping they’re right,” he says. “I won’t be surprised. I’ve seen the crowds in Diddle Arena, hopefully we’ll have that many people supporting us on Saturday.”
“I think that Steffphon is going to be overwhelmed with the response because people are so excited about him not only being a WKU player, but the fact that he’s Mr. Basketball” Topper head coach Darrin Horn says. “Our fans are thrilled to be able to see him play and are really looking forward to it.”
Regardless of where the game is played in Kentucky, the current Hilltoppers who have participated have enjoyed their “Welcome to WKU” moment upon being introduced prior to the first contest.
“It was great, it gave me a feeling that I now have every time I play in Diddle Arena,” says Ty Rogers, who represented Kentucky along with Maresca and Boris Siakam in ’04. “We have some of the best fans in the country, and they let us know that very early when we were introduced before the first game.”
“The whole weekend was great, a lot of people came out and showed their support — I have wonderful memories,” adds Slaughter. “The atmosphere at the game was crazy, and when they called my name the crowd erupted. I knew I made a real good choice to come to WKU when I saw how the crowd reacted.”
“It was a good feeling to know that the people were behind us,” says Siakam. “I know I appreciated the fans when I was up there.”
“When we played in Owensboro there were a lot of WKU fans, which made me more excited to be coming here,” Maresca says. “It was a fun and exciting experience.”
The introduction to WKU and its fans has been well received by the current players, but the Kentucky-Indiana All-Star Series has been almost as important to the Hilltopper program in its ability to allow the players to get to know each other prior to their arrival on campus. And, after playing the two games, they have felt good about their decision to come to the Hill and be a part of the WKU program.
“I didn’t know Ty or Matt until the coach introduced everyone the first night, and when I first met Courtney he told me he was coming to WKU too,” Siakam recalls. “After the first game I knew we were going to have a really good team.”
“Without a doubt, I think it helped us meeting each other before coming to WKU,” says Rogers. “Since the three of us knew we were coming here, we got to know each other and bonded in those two weeks and were able to lean on each other when we got to campus.”
Rogers had limited experience playing with Maresca on an AAU team and against Siakam during the latter’s one year at Caverna High, and he had never seen Lee play prior to the first game in the series that summer. Even after being one of several players called on to guard the future two-time first-team all-Sun Belt Conference selection as he shot 11-of-18 from the field including a 5-of-8 performance from behind the three-point line, he was thrilled.
“I had never met him before — of course I knew he was coming here — but hadn’t seen him play. From the first game we played, I knew coach Horn had signed a great player. I was excited that we were going to be teammates.”
That excitement is also shared by the Hilltopper coaching staff. Not only does Horn recognize that it is a nice honor for the players, but its shows that WKU is recruiting and signing individuals who are talented and have earned respect on the court before the arrive on the Hill.
“Anytime that you are able to be a part of something where you are representing a group bigger than what you’re used to — in this case, your high school, or when a collegian makes the Olympic team — it’s a great honor. Only the best get invited to those type of events, so to have our kids involved regularly hopefully says that we are going after the right kind of players.”
For the Hilltoppers those thrills extend beyond becoming teammates after the event. They all have an appreciation for the magnitude of the games, the tradition of the series and number of quality players who have represented both sides over the years.
“The Kentucky-Indiana series has been going on for a long time, there’s a tradition,” says Maresca. “You know that a lot of great players have participated on both sides. It was a huge thrill for me to be on that Kentucky team and to be a part of the series.”
Lee also understands the significance of the annual tradition. “The game means a lot. As kids grow up, it’s what they play for — to be one of the top players in their state and make the team.”
As important as the series has been to the current Hilltopper roster, it has allowed the players to get to know other individuals that they might have heard about but never had the chance to meet without participating in the contests. “I remember getting to hang out with the guys I had heard about throughout the state of Kentucky,” recalls Rogers. “Growing up I knew who they were, but being from a small town, I didn’t get to play against them that much. I really enjoyed those two weeks getting to know the best players in Kentucky.”
Siakam adds that now, when crossing paths with a former All-Star teammate, players are more than likely to talk about their time together representing the state. Such was the case last December, when he, Maresca and Rogers got to reunite with Chris Lofton prior to the Hilltoppers’ game at Tennessee.
And, while it means a lot to each of the players as they participate after their high school careers have come to an end, playing in the series is something that they will be able to look back on fondly years from now.
“We don’t talk much about the games,” Rogers says. “We enjoyed those, but we talk about our memories from the two weeks and the good times we had getting to know everyone.”
Horn, who played in Freedom Hall when he made the Kentucky All-Star team in 1991, agrees with Rogers’ assessment. “When you are involved in something that is as prestigious and has the tradition that this series has, you enjoy it when you’re doing it. But, it is not until you’re my age and you look back at the things you got to be a part of as a player that you realize that it was a really neat deal that and you are glad you were able to participate.”
So, while WKU fans can be sure that Pettigrew will appreciate his Diddle Arena appearance Saturday, he will also come to find from his future teammates and coach that the he’ll fondly remember the experience throughout his lifetime.