Is Michelle Clark-Heard the best coach on the campus of Western Kentucky?
The question raised is not meant to pit those who coach the Hilltoppers against each other in a caged death match, but rather to simply consider the job WKU’s fourth-year women’s basketball has done since taking over a fledgling program in 2012.
After this weekend’s sweep in Florida, Heard is now 88-27 at Western. That’s a winning percentage of 76.5. If she decided to hang up her whistle today, she’d leave as the best coach in the heralded history of the program.
But she’s not leaving today. She has more conference opponents to pummel. Another league title to chase. Perhaps another trip to the NCAA Tournament to make. All with a team no one expected to be a title contender in 2015-16.
“I don’t know about, ‘exceeded my expectations,’ ” she said last week. “We knew, recruiting some of these young players, that we felt like they could come in and help us. But I really believe, how we have responded through adversity, like with (point guard) Micah (Jones) going down, then just having different people step up, I would say that that has definitely been a plus for our team.
“I think it helped through our schedule that we traveled the way we did, and I think that it’s paying off. But we’re just in the beginning of conference now, and that’s what we play the nonconference and do all those things for, so you could get to that point.”
Despite losing to graduation two of the more-prolific scorers in program history in Alexis Govan and Chastity Gooch, having six newcomers, and six players who are sophomores or younger, Heard scheduled up, taking her team this year on trips to Muncie, Ind., Oxford, Miss., Anchorage, Alaska, Arlington, Texas, and Charleston, S.C.
Those excursions away from home could have left a young and inexperienced team exposed, beaten and downtrodden trying to adjust to the pitfalls of some necessary growing pains. But how many of those games did Heard’s team lose? Two.
And in the midst of all that, Jones (one of the just two seniors WKU has), one of the best players in Conference USA, tore an ACL. The Lady Toppers’ record sans Jones in the lineup? 11-1.
“Not really the success, but how quickly we’ve came around,” WKU redshirt-junior Kendall Noble said when asked if she was taken aback by her team’s play this year. “I didn’t really expect the freshmen to step up like they have as quickly. I’m proud of everybody.”
Western Kentucky’s run this year under Heard is not a flash in the pan, either.
She’s won at least 22 games each season since taking over a team that went 9-21 in 2011-12. She’s 51-15 against conference opponents and 7-1 in league tournament games. Inside E.A. Diddle Arena the Lady Toppers are 40-9.
Since Feb. 12, 2013, Western Kentucky’s record is 52-8.
“I think it has a lot to do with her passion,” WKU sophomore Tashia Brown said. “She always wants to win and she pushes us. She’s not always our favorite, but I think that’s a good thing about coach, is she’s able to push our buttons and get the best out of us out here on the court.”
Stylistically, the Lady Toppers are a joyous treat for their fans to watch – and a nightmare for the opposition. A high-paced, quick-scoring attack is catalyzed by a 1-2-2, panic-inducing defense. Under Heard, WKU is now 50-5 when scoring at least 70 points and 74-9 when allowing 69 or less.
The fourth-year coach has also continued to do all this within a familial culture any community would be proud of – check Heard’s Instagram feed for proof of the amicable relationships she carries on with all whom surround the program.
Juxtaposed with her peers, you could make a case for Travis Hudson and Eric Jenkins’ sustained success, Jeff Brohm’s rapid rise, or Amy Tudor and Ray Harper’s postseason excitement when comparing Heard’s run. You could argue about that the rigors and longevity of one team’s schedule and travel compared to another, the pitfalls of recruiting for the different sports, and the roster sizes of the respective programs – all which make comparing coaches across platforms unreasonable.
But it’s also unreasonable to deny Heard the right to be in that conversation.
Western Kentucky is now firmly entrenched among the nation's great mid-major programs, and before long it could take a permanent seat at the table of women's basketball blue bloods. Lady Topper fans can thank Michelle Clark-Heard for that – and it's time we all start recognizing the historic run taking place right in front of us.
Predictions sure to be wrong
The Kansas City Chiefs, aka the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, take one of their two trips this season to Texas, playing at Rice on Thursday and at North Texas on Saturday.
Western hasn’t been to Rice since 1980, a 76-63 win by a Clem Haskins coached team. The Tops have been to UNT six times – winning four of those trips – and had developed a nice little rivalry with the Mean Green back in the Sun Belt Conference days.
Those two WKU opponents this week are a combined 12-20 and Rice is 0-3 in league play. And as of Sunday, Rice’s RPI was 306 and UNT’s was 275.
But we should know by now that the only thing you can expect with Harper’s squad this season is the unexpected. Should they win these two games? Yup. Will they? The crystal ball is cloudy.
Because of the different styles of play of Rice and North Texas, because of WKU’s struggles on the road, because of the Tops’ inability to be very consistent to this point, I’m calling for a 1-1 trip as the growing pains continue.
Admittedly, I’ll be leaning for Clemson tonight for the simple fact that the Tigers haven’t won a national title since 1981 – their only championship in program history. Plus, the character of Dabo Swinney makes for good television.
But, there’s no denying Alabama’s dominance. Remember when the narrative earlier this season was that the Crimson Tide’s dynasty was coming to a close? Fools!
‘Bama is favored by seven, and as much as I’d like for a much closer game than that, I’m going to side with the Tide in a 35-24 win.
(Also, when you sit down to watch this evening, remember that Western Kentucky plays at Alabama the second week of the season in September.)
The second half of Sunday’s Cincinnati-Pittsburgh game was one of the more intriguing halves of football I’ve ever witnessed – the drama, the emotion, the physicality, the injuries, the heroics. It had a little bit of everything.
Because of all that transpired in Cincy, I don't expect the Steelers to go on the road for a second straight week and survive another physical matchup at Denver.
Favored by 6 1/2, I’m taking the Broncos to win 24-14.
Across the bracket, Kansas City (and my man Justin Houston) travels to New England where the Patriots are five-point favorites. As much as I enjoy watching KC play, it’s hard to bet against the Pats in the playoffs.
Taking New England – but close, 28-24.
In Charlotte, Carolina is favored by 3 over Seattle. I love watching the Seahawks’ defense, so I have faith they’ll be able to keep this one close enough to have a chance in the fourth quarter.
But I like the Panthers to eventually pull it out in a 20-16 win.
And finally, out in the desert, I don’t envision Green Bay being able to keep pace with Arizona’s offense: Cardinals 34, Packers 23.
Record to date: 36-35. A 4-2 week – ballin!
Quote of the week
Western Kentucky sophomore guard Tashia Brown on Michelle Clark-Heard: “She’s gonna push our buttons, and she don’t care whether you like her or not. But at the end of the day, we know it’s all good – she’s just trying to make us better."
Musical pick of the week
Happened to catch ATL: The untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game this week on vh1.
It’s a great piece – but I’m biased considering it contains a lot of what was the soundtrack of my youth. So today, here’s some T.I.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop