Saturday, March 23, 2013

Farewell to the Hilltoppers

One of the things I really like about the WKU basketball fans is that they refuse to think of their school as just another "mid-major."  In their mind, Western's rich and storied basketball history ranks it among the elites of the sport, and they long for the chance to shine on the national stage.  Last night, for a few hours, college basketball looked the way Hilltopper fans think it should -- with WKU on national television in a slugfest against a legendary program.  Sixteenth-seeded Western actually led Kansas 31-30 at the half, and despite having to play before a pro-Jayhawk crowd in Kansas City, the Hilltoppers never went away.  Kansas finally won, 64-57, but no one could deny the quality of WKU's performance.

Western struggled in January and early February, but it was another great year for Coach Ray Harper, who won his second consecutive Sun Belt title.  Harper is 20-17 in regular season Sun Belt games, but 8-0 in the Sun Belt Tournament.  The Tops lose Jamal Crook and Teeng Akol, but the rest of the team will be back next year, and we are excited to see them.  The Tops have an all-time record of 1675-843 -- it would be great to see them pick up their 1700th win next year.

Western Kentucky finished with a record of 10-10 in the Sun Belt, and 20-16 overall.  The Hilltoppers won the Sun Belt Tournament for the second year in a row, and made their 23d appearance in the NCAA Tournament.  They become the fifth of Kentucky's six D-1 teams to be eliminated from this year's competition.


  1. I spent a lot of the last 24 hours on social media with old WKU folk. The range of reactions to last night's loss is roughly from "nothing to hang our heads about/proud to be a Hilltopper" to "the refs hosed us on the last foul call against Rostov/there is no such thing as a 'moral victory.'" I personally had each of these somewhat contradictory reactions myself. Seems to me that, by and large, the folks that have mostly moved on from WKU and small-town Kentucky were more magnanimous in defeat, while the ones who have stayed more closely connected to the school, team and this area of the country have been a little more analytical and angry.

    A Bowling Green native/WKU grad who now lives in Evansville, Ind., for example, in the first half (correctly) excoriated my favorite college basketball player, George Fant, for trying a crazy shot against Kansas's 7-foot center that not only missed but also led to a layup and foul by the 7-footer at the other end. Another WKU dude who has moved back to Bowling Green and goes to a lot of the games wrote a Facebook post this morning in which he compared the experience of this game to "kissing a pretty girl when your intentions are totally different from hers and then she slaps the crap out of you." And then a friend of mine who moved from high school in Illinois and literally never moved away in the 50 years since--and for many of those worked the scorer's table at Tops games--has simply been silent on Facebook since Thursday afternoon.

    Well, I went to WKU and loved it, and I lived there for a while. And then I moved away from Kentucky for 15 years or so, and now I've moved back to Madisonville. So, yeah, I feel the Tops have nothing to hang their heads about. And, yeah, I'm proud to be a Hilltopper. And, yeah, I thought the refs hosed us a number of times. And, yeah, I have pretty much zero sense of moral victory.

  2. But here's the real deal: It doesn't matter what any of us feel.

  3. What matters is what one person feels, and that one person is Ray Harper.

  4. WKU has a bunch of hoops tradition. It has a strong fan base, and it seems to me to have (at least) good enough facilities. It's a beautiful school with a lot of great programs, but it's not Harvard to get into. Bowling Green is the good college town in that there's all kinds of fun to be had, but, at the same time, it's quaint enough that Mom and Dad are typically not scared to dump you out there after high school. And there's enough basketball talent in southcentral Kentucky that you occasionally can uncover a Gem in your own backyard--as well as ample able role players. And you get some U of L/UK runoff.

    So all of that stuff is necessary and present.

  5. But that stuff even altogether isn't nearly enough for WKU to overcome its limitations (conference nonsense, it's not being U of L/UK, podunk portrayal, directional name, etc.) and be one of the really great teams in the country. It takes one person who recognizes the opportunity presented by all of the good things and then has the ability an works like the dickens to turn the whole into something greater than the sum.

  6. Think Ed Diddle was just a sweet, funny, nervous buffoon who lucked into a long career on state payroll and then getting a gym named after him?

  7. Well, Ed Diddle played on an undefeated basketball team at Centre College, and he was a blocker for the football team that won the national championship in the one year he was in Europe training as a naval aviator. He became a Sweet Sixteen high-school basketball coach. And the score of the first game he coached at Western, coaching the Hilltoppers against the "Independents" (probably a bunch of ex-high-school players) from Adairville in Logan County ... adjacent to BG's Warren and a place where you probably are going to want to sell tickets and/or have some friends in recruiting? 103-7.

    What kind of jerk beats anyone in anything ever by 103 to 7? A blood-thirsty and able killer. That's what Ed Diddle apparently also was.

  8. And what of Johnny Oldham, the coach who followed Diddle and got Western back into the national top 10 in the middle 1960s?

  9. It's easy now--particularly with his younger cousin, Fant, playing for the current Hilltoppers--to assume it was inevitable that Jim McDaniels from nearby Scottsville would play at WKU. Well, it was enough in doubt in Coach Oldham's mind at least that he wore out U.S. 231 running back and forth between Bowling Green and Scottsville birddogging the prize recruit. Oldham once joked to Dave Kindred that he could make that drive in his sleep.

    No college coach likes having to schmooze teen-agers to come play for them. Oldham was a former All-American player himself who already had Western back high in the national polls once he started recruiting McDaniels; nobody was going to fire Oldham if McDaniels, one of the most heavily recruited players in the country, had chosen instead to go to, say, U of L--or become the first black player at UK, which also recruited him. But Oldham apparently wasn't worried about just keeping his job in his old college town; he wanted to win a freaking national championship. So back and forth he drove to Scottsville, often dining with the McDaniels family or watching Muhammad Ali boxing matches at their house. He worked hard.

  10. At some point during last night's broadcast, TNT was interviewing Ray Harper, and he said something along the lines of "we are trying to get this program back to national prominence."

    That's the kind of thing we around WKU are always wanting to hear, and (or so) that's the kind of thing that coaches are always saying around WKU. All of them come out at their introductory press conferences and wave a red towel; some have a harder time disguising their senses of irony doing it than others. Since Coach Diddle took over the men's basketball team from L.T. Smith in 1922, we've had 12 full-time head coaches, and all 12 of them have gotten the Tops at least once into the (bigger and bigger) Big Dance. So they've all had some degree of national success. But I'll bet no more than four of those 12 guys took the job with the honest intention and plan to leading WKU back into (not toward) true contention for a national championship.

    I think RayRay's on the up and up.

  11. People who are actually around Bowling Green and who speak as though they might actually know or know people who might actually know say that Coach Harper doesn't plan to go anywhere. They all talk about the fact that the dude's 51 (and not some 28-year-old in wide-toed shoes and Axe body spray hoping to get the Florida job after the guy who gets the Florida job after Billy Donovan leaves for UCLA). They all talk about the fact that the Coach Harper's mom is up there an hour away back home in Bremen. They all say that this is Coach Harper's "dream job."

  12. The first thing that really suggested to me that Coach Harper might actually be a lifer was when it came out that Crazy Ray from Crazy Muhlenberg County had kicked Middle Tennessee State when it was down after WKU had stolen the Sun Belt's automatic berth last season. Per (the fantastic) Hilltopper Haven:

    For those not at the Selection Sunday party in Diddle yesterday, Ray Harper said he'd been asked if MTSU deserved to be in the tournament. His response was that they absolutely do deserve to be in the tournament, that the NIT is exactly the right place for them (paraphrasing). The crowd, as you might guess, loved it. BTW, this happened just a little before 5 CST, before the selection show began.

    Well, that's exactly the kind of thing that a true WKU person would say. And it's exactly the kind of thing you don't say if you're worried about who might be associate athletics director where when you start looking to move "up" two years from now.

  13. So I think Coach Harper does plan to stay.

    I also think it must really be hard to turn down more money. I, for one, never have done so. Never. Every time I've been actually offered a job that paid more money than the one I currently had, I took it.

  14. And I would bet money that Coach Harper today(!) has been offered a job that pays more money than the one he currently has.

  15. This guy can really, really coach.

  16. Two years in a row, he has coached a damaged Hllltoppers team to four wins in four days in his team's conference tournament to reach the NCAA tournament. Think that sounds like no big deal? Well, according to TNT's broadcast last night, nobody else has ever done it.

  17. And last night he nearly coached the Tops to the first 16-seed-over-1 upset in NCAA-tournament history.

  18. They should've won.

    I'm serious. They should've won.

    There might not have been only one combination of coaching decisions that would've turned the tumblers for a WKU win over Kansas last night, but there couldn't be too many different possibilities. I think Coach Harper found one; I think he thought he did, too (after the game, I saw where he said that he found the result more "unfortunate" than "frustrating," and I imagine this is what that meant).

  19. I stupidly didn't take Coach Oldham's or Coach Jim Richards's intro-to-coaching for my P.E. credit at WKU (stupid billiards option), or I might know how it was that WKU had Kansas in trouble for a lot of last night's game. Sure seemed to me, though, that the elements included:

    -- the waves of substitutions of seemingly interchangeable parts to keep Hilltopper legs fresh for late second-half pressing;

    -- trusting that all of these interchangeable parts would actually know the plays well enough to be interchangeable;

    -- the late second-half pressing, and

    -- isolating WKU's 6-foot-6 Fant against Kansas's 7-footer at the top of the key on offense.

    Here's what I do know. It wasn't like WKU just came out and shot lights-out or Kansas just came out and couldn't hit a barn broad-side. Neither was the case. Both teams shot 48 percent from the field in the first half, and yet WKU led in Kansas City, 31-30, at the break. Ultimately, KU outshot WKU--but was outrebounded and committed more turnovers.

    The Hilltoppers got into bad foul trouble late in the second half, and Kansas pushed its lead out to 12. At this point, I thought the Jayhawks were going to win by 20 or more.

    Not so. With Fant fouled out, the Tops finally started hitting their three-pointers down the stretch. They got it to within a one-possession game with the ball in the final minute. I once saw WKU's former women's coach, Paul Sanderford, keel over on the court after a game, and there were a couple of shots of red-faced Bill Self where I thought he was about to do so.

    WKU should've won.

  20. Almost immediately after the game, a WKU grad Facebooked that Coach Harper should be on the phone with Dominique Hawkins, the star of Madison Central's Sweet Sixteen championship a couple of weeks ago, today. (Hawkins reportedly has an offer from WKU but also has interest from UK, and Hawkins reportedly really wants to go there.) I think the WKU grad is right. This is the next frontier for Coach Harper: Can you occasionally convince the best player in the state to come play for the Tops instead of UK or U of L?

    1. Dominique Hawkins commits to UK.

      Well, I'm happy for him, and I'm happy for UK, and I'm so thankful it wasn't LSU or Butler or Boston U or anyone else.

  21. I'll bet he can. But, again, it doesn't matter what I think.

  22. Does Coach Harper think he can? And is that challenge the kind of thing that makes him want to stick around for the long haul and really shoot to take the Tops back to national prominence?

  23. The whole conversation about last night's close-but-no-cigar performance comes down to how one person feels about the whole deal, and that person is Ray Harper.

    The rest of us have already decided about him.

  24. Thanks.

    Two things I got wrong about last night's game: KU's longest lead was 11 (and 12), and WKU got to only within four (not three) in the game's last minute.

    Also, per Sports Illustrated, not only did Coach Oldham keep Jim McDaniels from everybody, he also recruited Hazard's Jim Rose, a super guard, away from Houston, which had Elvin Hayes at the time.