Sunday, March 16, 2014

Farewell to the Hilltoppers

We are big fans of all things WKU here at the Heath Post, and so we were very sorry to see that the Hilltoppers lost in the semi-final of the Sun Belt Tournament to Louisiana-Lafayette.  If I'm correctly reading the comments on the Hilltopper Haven Message Board, this was WKU's last game in the Sun Belt Conference, where it has competed since 1982.  Next year, WKU will be a member of Conference USA, where it will be reunited with old rival Middle Tennessee State.

Western suffered a heartbreaking loss today, losing 73-72 -- and missing a potential game-winning layup at the buzzer.  The Hilltoppers went 20-12 for the year, and 12-6 in the SBC.

This is the third trip to the SBC tournament for coach Ray Harper, and the first he hasn't won.  Harper took over in the middle of the 2011-12 season, so we now have a few years' worth of data to see how he's doing.  Here's Western's record since the 2001-02 season, along with its rankings according to Ken Pomeroy (SBC tournament winners in bold):

Coach Dennis Felton
2002:  26-4 (46th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings) (lost to Stanford in the 1st round of the NCAA Tournament)
2003:  24-9 (54th) (lost to Illinois in the 1st round of the NCAA Tournament)
After this season, Felton left to take the Georgia job.

Coach Darrin Horn
2004:  15-14 (118th)
2005:  22-9 (90th) (lost in second round of NIT)
2006:  23-8 (99th) (lost in first round of NIT)
2007:  22-11 (127th)
2008:  29-7 (37th) (lost to UCLA in Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament)
After this season, Horn left to take the South Carolina job

Coach Ken McDonald
2009:  25-9 (86th) (lost to Gonzaga in 2d round of the NCAA Tournament)
2010:  21-13 (126th)
2011:  16-16 (223d)
McDonald was fired in the middle of the 2012 season

Coach Ray Harper:
2012:  16-19 (189th) (lost to Kentucky in 1st round of NCAA Tournament)
2013:  20-16 (183d) (lost to Kansas in 1st round of NCAA Tournament)
2014:  20-12 (181st)

So we can see that Harper has stopped the decline in the program that happened after the 2010 season, and has made two trips to the NCAA Tournament.  On the other hand, in terms of how Western compares to the rest of the country, each of Western's last three teams are ranked well below every WKU team from 2002 to 2010.  In other words, Harper has yet to build a team as good as the teams Western typically enjoyed under Dennis Felton and Darrin Horn.

This will need to change as Western moves into Conference USA.  This year, Georgia State was the only SBC team ranked in Ken Pom's top 100.  By contrast, the C-USA had five teams ranked between 35 and 91).

Personally, I remain optimistic about Harper's chances.  Getting into Conference USA should allow Western to upgrade its recruiting, and I look forward to seeing how Harper and the Hilltoppers do in their new league.

Western Kentucky is the third team from the Commonwealth to be eliminated from the national championship race.  Three Kentucky schools are still competing.


  1. Yeah, that was a rough loss. I was so ready to fire up the #HarperMania until T.J. Price's layup missed.

    On the other hand, this was amazing.

  2. Whatever happens, I'm glad Western is leaving the Sun Belt.

  3. Me, too. I wish they would go back to the OVC, of course, but I'm in a minority among the WKU crowd on that score.

    You know what's great news? WKU wasn't picked for the NIT, so I don't have to pay attention to that tournament at all.

  4. I used to want WKU to go back to the OVC, but now I'm happy that I can root for them and Murray to both make the NCAA's. I can remember when WKU would knock Murray out of the NCAA's, and it used to drive me nuts.

  5. Yeah, that's true. OK, you convinced me. Now I am excited about ConfUSA.

  6. Replies
    1. "We need to come together and set a plan on going for greatness."

      I'm always in favor of that.

    2. YEAHH! Big Jim has inspired me. Next year I'm holding WKU to a higher standard.