Harper makes history with his third straight 20-win season.

WKU’s head coach Ray Harper reacts to a foul call in the final minutes of WKU’s 52-53 loss against UAB in the second round of the Conference USA tournament Thursday, March 12, 2015, at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Ala. Mike Clark/HERALD

Billy Rutledge

The WKU basketball program has a long and lucrative history, but Head Coach Ray Harper achieved a feat this season that legendary coaches E.A Diddle, John Oldham or any other coach in Hilltopper history has failed to meet in their tenure on the Hill.

Harper became the first coach in program history to win 20 games in each of his first three full seasons as head coach. WKU’s 59-45 first round victory over Marshall in the C-USA tournament this year gave WKU its 43rd 20-win season, a mark tied for seventh in the all-time 20-win seasons in NCAA history. WKU is currently tied with Syracuse in the category, a college that has made 37 NCAA tournament appearances and five Final Four visits.

“I think that he (Harper) does an outstanding job coaching the game once it starts,” Athletic Director Todd Stewart said. “He is excellent at making adjustments, and he’s excellent at maximizing the personnel that he has.”

“I think when he took over as an interim coach, which predates any of these 20-win seasons, was probably one of the best coaching jobs I’ve ever seen anybody do anywhere. 

“He inherited a team that, I believe was 5-11 at the time. We were in disarray, and there was no energy in the program at all,” Stewart said. “And he changed all that almost immediately, and then we end up winning a conference tournament that year, make the NCAA tournament and win our first game in the NCAA tournament in dramatic fashion, so I think that showed the kind of coach that he is. The key for any coach, obviously, is recruiting and having some talent, and we lose a lot of production this year certainly, so we need to recruit well and continue to bring in good players, but I’m confident we will.”

WKU is 71-47 under Harper and holds a 9-2 record in the conference tournament during that time. The Hilltoppers have earned two Sun Belt Conference Championships and two NCAA tournament appearances under his regime as well.

Harper found immediate success in his first season at WKU after joining the squad half way through the 2011-2012 season. He led them to an 11-8 record and the first of two Sun Belt Championships with a 74-70 win over North Texas. In 2012-2013, his first full season at the helm, Harper led WKU to a 20-16 record, the program’s first 20 win season since 2009-2010, and another Sun Belt Championship, this time a 65-63 victory over FIU.

His success can be attributed to a mixture of timing and good coaching. Harper was fortunate enough in his first season to have two freshmen that would go on to become two of the greatest players to ever wear the red and white— T.J. Price and George Fant were on the squad Harper took over in 2011. 

Harper has been able to squeeze every ounce of talent from the WKU players. Price ended his career in sixth place on the all-time WKU career scoring list while Fant placed both on the scoring list (13) and all-time career rebounding list (8).

“I think they both (Fant and Price) rank up among the biggest contributors we’ve ever had from both an individual and team standpoint,” Stewart said. “Individually, T.J. is the number six scorer all-time. I mean, you look at all the people that have played basketball at Western Kentucky, ranked sixth is pretty special. George, 13th in scoring and eighth in rebounding, so I mean, again, they leave a tremendous legacy from an individual standpoint, but they were winners also. They went to two NCAA tournaments and won 20 games their last three years. They didn’t just achieve individual success at the expense of winning, and I think that’s a true credit to both of them.”

WKU’s final season in the Sun Belt Conference in 2013-2014 finished in consecutive 20-win fashion, but the Tops were met with some disappointment in the postseason. The Hilltoppers’ season ended after a 73-72 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in the semi-finals of the conference tournament. Harper was able to rejuvenate his troops for an exciting 2014-2015 campaign the following season, the Hilltoppers inaugural year in Conference USA. 

This season, Harper achieved feats that made his resume improve more as a coach. The Hilltoppers defeated their first ranked opponent at home (No. 25 Old Dominion) since 1986, they rattled off a nine game winning streak and sat atop their new conference for a brief period of time.

The season came to a close after another one-point loss in the conference tournament, this time a 53-52 loss to UAB. The loss marked the first time WKU has failed to reach the semi-finals for the conference tournament in the past ten seasons. But, the defeat didn’t come before Harper reached 20 wins for the third consecutive year, after defeating Marshall in the first round. 

Harper’s continued success has elevated WKU into a higher-level conference, and expectations are continuing to grow. It may be the second consecutive year that WKU will miss the NCAA tournament, but it is also the third consecutive year that WKU has found consistent, sustained success under their leader and now historic Head Coach Ray Harper.

“Ultimately our goals are higher than to finish fifth in the regular season, and we want to win conference championships. We want to win conference tournaments. We want to go to the NCAA tournament, and we want to advance in the NCAA tournament. That’s what our program goals are,” Stewart said. “Certainly there is a lot we can still achieve, but I am confident. I am proud of what we have achieved over the last three years, and our coaches and players deserve a lot of credit for that.”