Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ray's First Ride

Go Heath mercifully resisted a Sun Belt Conference men's basketball update yesterday, I imagine, because my Hilltoppers are--to use a blast from his D.C.'s radio past--hurting. WKU is 11-10 overall and 5-5 in the Belt. Ray Harper's first full season as head coach of this team--after such a tremendous finish to last season--started 8-2. Then came a three-game/three-loss road swing against good teams in December (Murray State, Virginia Commonwealth and Louisville), and there hasn't been a whole bunch to stand up and cheer about since then.

Well, stuff gets real today, baby. At MTSU. The Blue Raiders are 17-4 and 9-1. RayRay has been playing nicenice with MTSU in the press this week, but don't kid yourself into thinking Murfreesboro is going to be feeling any too hospitable today.

These teams started playing each other a hundred years ago (no, really), and, for more than 40 of those years, they've been in the same conference (1952-'82 together in the OVC, since 2000 in the Belt). WKU holds a roughly 3:1 advantage in all-time wins in the series, but MTSU has won five of the last six--and the Blue Raiders are the obvious, heavy favorites when the two tip off on ESPN2 this afternoon for what could be their last meeting ever.

I'd love to know what Coach Harper is saying or doing with his team this morning. Whatever it is, I'm sure it's intentional--not just the standard, getting-out-the-door-of-Diddle-and-on-the-road business of an away game.

I don't know anything about coaching a basketball team. But, when I pretend that I'm Coach Harper this morning, I'm giving the bus driver the Saturday off. I'm tossing the keys to George Fant, and I'm having him drive the Tops down U.S. 231 to MTSU. I'm having him go straight through Scottsville--home of Fant's cousin, Jim McDaniels--and somehow taking advantage of my team's two, twisty hours together. I might be talking about being part of tradition, or I might be talking about forgetting tradition. Or I'm geting Fant or 6-foot-11 "Big Mac" or Fant's mom, tough old Lady Top Kim Norman or somebody else to do the talking. Or I'm having everybody sit quietly the whole way. Something. Whatever thing that I think will spark the most fires, turn on the most lights, ring the most bells among this group of guys, I'm going ahead and doing that thing right now. Even though there's more than a month to go in the regular season, and a coach gets only so many shots to say something to a team before it becomes just blah-blah-blah talk, I'm shooting my best of those shots today. Because if there's a lifeless loss at MTSU today, I'm afraid whatever I say later won't matter in terms of getting guys to believe in themselves and each other. Anyway, my pretend trip is awesome, and we win the pretend game.

Well, whatever real Coach Harper is saying or doing right now, I hope it really works. And I really hope it turns out to be the first great story of his first real, full season as head coach at WKU. Go, Tops!

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