Harper takes veterans into new conference

WKU’s Head Coach Ray Harper (center) leads the Toppers in a cheer during a timeout in the second half of WKUÕs 68-64 victory over Texas State on Saturday, Feb. 1, at Diddle Arena. (Mike Clark/HERALD)

Elliott Pratt

WKU basketball Head Coach Ray Harper will be in a unique situation next season, one that could be considered a blessing.

Harper, who will enter his third full season as coach of the Toppers, will have five seniors: Guard T.J. Price, guard Kevin Kaspar, guard Trency Jackson, forward Aaron Adeoye and forward George Fant.

It’s a class that’s not used to watching the NCAA Tournament from home. In the previous two seasons, WKU won the Sun Belt Conference tournament championship by winning four games in four days, resulting in back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths.

But that didn’t happen this season. The Toppers earned a double-bye in the tournament and an automatic place in the semifinals where they lost to Louisiana-Lafayette – which ended up in The Dance as the lone Sun Belt representative.

“George and T.J. and Kevin have been here a long time. I was talking to George about this (Monday), it goes by quick,” Harper said. “This season was probably a real wake-up call for them the way it ended. I really feel like they felt we were going to win another conference tournament championship, and that’s great – that’s how you should feel.

“But we’ve got to approach every game like it’s a conference championship. Fortunately the last two years we were able to go to the conference tournament and win four games.

“I’m glad I’ve got those three seniors right there to kind of help lead us.”

Just because WKU didn’t make the NCAA Tournament doesn’t mean that the season wasn’t a success, according to Harper.

The team finished the season 20-12 overall, 12-6 in the Sun Belt, good for second place in the final regular season standings. The year before, the Toppers went 20-16 and lost by seven points to Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Harper believes the program is headed in the right direction, even with an earlier exit to the season than the team is used to.

“I thought we competed and I thought there was one game where we laid an egg and I thought we responded from that point forward,” Harper said. “Probably most disappointed on how we shot free throws. I felt like if we made free throws, we probably win five more games. Unfortunately we didn’t as a team. Hopefully we’ll be a much better free throw shooting team next season.”

The Toppers lost five games by 10 points or less and shot 65 percent on free throws on the year.

The team returns its best free-throw shooter with Chris Harrison-Docks, who shot 86 percent last season as a redshirt freshman.

Harper is most excited about the development of freshman Ben Lawson. Harper said Lawson has grown an inch up to 7-foot-1 and looks to add some weight to the center from England.

“The guy we hope will turn the corner is Ben Lawson,” Harper said. “If you look around he’s grown, he’s now 7’ 1”. I think he has a chance to be a very good player before he leaves this program. There’s not a lot of 7’ 1” guys that can run and jump like he does. He’s skilled so I think this was a great learning year for him.”

The Toppers are facing new changes next year heading into Conference USA, looking to renew old rivalries with the likes of Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion, UAB and Charlotte, as Harper mentioned.

The coach believes this season was a wake-up call for his team realizing how close they were to making a three-peat as conference champions.

“We won 20 games, we finished second in the league and you lose your starting center (Aleksejs Rostov) and your backup point guard (Keven Kaspar) with eight or 10 games to go in the season and kids continue to battle. (Louisiana) Lafayette was playing terrific at the end of the year. We were right there and had a shot to win the game. All you want is an opportunity to give yourself a chance and I thought we did that.”