While there are still top tier basketball programs competing in post-season play, the basketball season officially ended for WKU when the women’s program dropped to fifth seeded Texas in the NCAA tournament six days ago.
The men’s program on the other hand took an earlier exit from post-season play, dropping its semi-final clash in the Conference USA tournament against host school UAB on March 12.
Though, the loss shouldn’t come as too much of a stain to the Hilltoppers in their inaugural C-USA season, as UAB went on to win the tournament in their hometown, receive the C-USA’s only bid to the big dance with a 14 seed and even upset third seed Iowa State in the first round.
The women’s program had a season for the record books. Obviously the new conference brought higher expectations for the program at large, but even Athletic Director Todd Stewart did not expect the performance put forth by Head Coach Michelle Clark-Heard, her staff and players.
“We were optimistic that we would have a good season based on how we finished last year and who we had coming back,” Stewart said. “But I would be lying to you if I told you I thought we would end up winning 30 games.”
While the records set by WKU athletics across the board—the women’s basketball record setting season, Ray Harper notching a 20-plus win season for his first three years at the helm (this was the first time a WKU basketball coach has done so), the men’s swim program capturing their second-straight C-USA crown, the men’s track and field program receiving their first national ranking ever, Brandon Doughty’s record setting and nationally recognized season, or the football program’s first FBS bowl win in school history—is impressive, what is equally as important to WKU is the strides WKU athletics has made towards the national limelight.
Looking back to football season, Todd Stewart expressed in January at an administrative council meeting that the exposure brought to the program through competing in the nationally televised Bahamas’ Bowl was of far more value than the monetary compensation for competing or winning the contest itself.
He even echoed the same notion after the Lady Toppers lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament just under a week ago.
Stewart said that the exposure brought to the program through playing on ESPN 2, against a team like Texas (who has dollar for dollar the largest budget of any athletics program in the country) is huge in terms of pushing WKU to the national level that the athletics department aspires to be a part of.
Taking the athletics program to the Conference USA was certainly a step in the right direction in terms of competing against a higher-level of competition, and receiving more national attention.
Sure, the C-USA is a single-bid league into the NCAA tournament, and does not hold an automatic BCS bowl game bid during football season, but the progress that has been made over the past year alone across the board speaks for itself.