Pratt: For this year, the magic ran out

WKU junior guard T.J. Price looks on after a 73-72 loss against University of Louisiana Lafayette during the 2014 Men’s Sun Belt Tournament semifinal round at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, La. on Saturday Mar. 15, 2014. (Jeff Brown/HERALD)

Elliott Pratt

As long as I’ve been writing for the Herald, there has always been extra basketball for the Toppers in March.

Not this year.

Last year I stood and watched the NCAA tournament selection show on a big screen with several hundred WKU faithful and a team that had just a week before, won its second-straight Sun Belt Conference tournament championship by a miracle run.

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Not this year.

The Toppers had the ball and a chance to do something magical. Ray Harper had a timeout in his back pocket, but rolled the dice and let fate have its way. Fate had traditionally favored WKU.

Not this year.

This year, fate had other ideas.

At some point in a magic trick, you become unamused and you want to see the strings that are attached and you want to know about the man behind the curtain.

You insist the magician show his hand, then he runs out of tricks. Harpermania ensued in 2011 when Ray Harper took over midseason and took the Toppers to The Dance.

Last season, the magic came back and fell seven points short of college basketball history.

This year, the magic ran out.

“I’m not really used to it,” junior forward George Fant said after the team’s semifinal loss to Louisiana-Lafayette. “It definitely does hurt, but I’m proud of my team, proud of my coaches, proud of the players. It just didn’t go right for us.”

“It’s tough, but we’ve got to remember this feeling and get ready for next year.”

There were no major storylines this season – you got what you saw with this team. There were no major coaching changes, no plague of injuries that overwhelmed a team.

It was pretty cut and dry. They weren’t the most talented, but they would fight.

So there I was, thinking of how strange it was to watch the selection show in a newsroom knowing that Western Kentucky wasn’t going to be part of the 68 teams picked to dance.

Their RPI wasn’t good enough to get picked to the NIT. Bad losses to Bowling Green State (12-20) and future Conference USA opponent Marshall (11-22) in the non conference schedule don’t look good on any resume.

A College Basketball Invitation game wouldn’t do the school any good. CBI games cost too much money to host what is ultimately a pointless basketball game.

Some may say any post-season game is a good post-season game, but not if you’re a program that’s been to back-to-back NCAA tournaments.

It’s not that WKU is too high-and-mighty to play in the CBI (see Indiana athletics director Fred Glass’ comments about playing in the CBI), it’s just that it wouldn’t serve the university any financial benefit from playing in a post-season tournament where the finances rely solely on the participating host team.

So instead, WKU basketball leaves the Sun Belt Conference empty handed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing looking at the bigger picture.

Barring any roster changes, it’s not like the Toppers are going to have to replace a lot of key guys that have been major components on previous NCAA tournament teams.

WKU loses three seniors with Caden Dickerson, O’Karo Akamune and Brandon Harris, Dickerson being the only one of the three who knows what’s like to end the season without a tournament invitation.

Harper has a lot to look forward to next year.

Add in the fact he’ll be returning most of his starting lineup and a new start in Conference USA, there’s a lot of things to look forward to from any perspective on this team thanks to what is going to be a heavy senior class.

The team’s leading scorers with T.J. Price and George Fant will be hungry to finish strong in their senior season.They’ll return Trency Jackson at the point. Aaron Adeoye has a chance to step in and take over where O’Karo Akamune left off with crucial minutes near the glass. Kevin Kaspar, who Harper said was a guy the team missed most on the floor, will be back as a seasoned floor general at guard.

Having your season end by one point is always going to hurt. When the team looks back on this game, they’ll catch themselves playing the what-if game and see it could’ve gone either way (*cough* free throws *cough*).

But you can’t define a 31 game season off a one-point loss in one game. The team’s next man up mentality proves there’s a lot to look back on and see that the future is bright for WKU basketball.

But for now, there are no magic tricks. We’ll have to wait a several months to see what the magician holds.