Ken McDonald will enter his second season as head coach at Western Kentucky. (pictopia.com)
By Ronak Patel
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Mention the word "mid-major" to Ken McDonald and he's quick to stop you midway through a question.
McDonald, who enters his second year as head coach of the Western Kentucky men's basketball team, relishes the chance to dispute the "mid-major" label thrown around by media pundits to describe programs like WKU or Gonzaga or Davidson.
"There's nothing mid-major about Western Kentucky," said McDonald, who was an assistant on Rick Barnes' staff at Texas for four years before coming to WKU. "We have tremendous facilities, tradition and coaching staff. (WKU) can play in any conference in the country and hold our own.
"I take offense to the ‘mid-major' label and people need to get away from that moniker. There's plenty of programs that compete on a national basis, like Coach (Mark) Few's Gonzaga program and Coach (John) Calipari's UMass and Memphis program. The key is to have the coaching staff intact and take chances."
The Hilltoppers, no strangers to the NCAA tournament stage with 21 overall appearances, went 25-9 last season and once again embroiled themselves in another close contest during the tournament. This time, unlike the 2008 team, led by now well-known Courtney Lee – a rookie guard on the NBA Finals runner-up Orlando Magic – that advanced to the Sweet 16 with a dramatic buzzer-beater over Drake in the first round, the Hilltoppers were stopped by Gonzaga in the second round when freshman Demetri Goodson nailed a running bank shot with under a second left in the contest.
"You have to put a loss like that in perspective," said McDonald, who was an assistant for WKU under then-coach Dennis Felton before moving on to Texas. "Our team had a lot of heart last season and got better each game. We lost our top three guards (Lee, Ty Rogers and Tyrone Brazelton) from the prior year and came within one shot of another Sweet 16.
"And they played for an entire new coaching staff, so for them to accomplish what they did was something amazing."
The team played a six-man rotation last season, led by departed guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez, who was second on the team in scoring at 14.2 points per game. The good news for McDonald is the team returns four starters off of last year's team, including senior guard A.J. Slaughter, who led the team in scoring at 16 points a game and junior swingman Steffphon Pettigrew, who chipped in at 12.7 points per game.
"The team last year exceeded my expectations and although we played just six guys, they played their hearts out," said McDonald.
But as McDonald looks down the bench for the coming year, he will see a welcomed change. The team adds six newcomers from one of the nation's best recruiting classes. Among the haul includes swingman Terrence Boyd, a highly-touted player from Norman, Oklahoma who played last season in San Diego. Boyd was listed as a four-star recruit by Rivals.com. Also in the mix is 6'10 forward Cliff Dixon, half-brother of NBA star Kevin Durant. Dixon will bring much needed size to the Hilltoppers who play an up-tempo style predicated on speed.
"We'll miss Mendez-Valdez's leadership but unlike last year, we can play more and more guys this year and it's all about putting the pieces together," McDonald said. "We will always have high, high expectations and we want the incoming freshman class to be the first in the program's history to play in the NCAA Tournament all four years of there eligibility."
The Hilltoppers, who defeated Louisville on a neutral court and lost close contests to Florida State and Houston last year, faces the same problem that Gonzaga and Siena have encountered the past few years. It's hard to get BCS conference teams to play WKU on its home court.
"We struggle with getting teams to come here and play us," McDonald said. "We're in the same boat as (Siena and others) in that regard, but with that being said, it's worth it for us to go out there and play schools because despite the fact we took licks, it made us an even more tougher-minded team."
That mindset was established under previous coach Darrin Horn, who moved onto to South Carolina and enhanced under McDonald, who credits the relationship he has with WKU athletic director Dr. Camden Wood Selig for help making the transition from assistant coach to head coach possible.
"I work for an incredible athletic director and we have tremendous people in key leadership positions here," McDonald said. "Our players should expect to compete at a championship level and we talk about the NCAAs as our main goal from day one.
"The key for us is ‘How do we get there?' It comes from improvement all-around – most importantly academically to athletically, how they improving there games in the summer and did they get better from the year before. If they do that, then we have a fighting chance, especially coming from a historical one-bid league (Sun Belt Conference)," McDonald said.
With a team that has a chance to start in the top 25, the Hilltoppers may be major players again next March. But please refrain from calling them a "mid-major."