Aulbach: Expect big things from both WKU teams this year

Head coach Ray Harper during the WKU men’s basketball team practice Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, at E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Ky.

Lucas Aulbach

The expectations surrounding the men’s and women’s basketball teams this season could hardly be further from what they were a year ago.

At this point in 2012, the WKU men’s team was expected to be the No. 4 team in the Sun Belt Conference and was without a preseason All-Sun Belt member. The Lady Toppers, meanwhile, were preparing to follow up a 9-21 season and weren’t expected to get out of the Sun Belt basement.

One year can make a heck of a difference — it’s a known fact that both teams have the ability to win the Sun Belt Conference in WKU’s final season in the league.

The men’s team looked like a surprise winner at last year’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament, but anyone following the team could see the Toppers were better than their regular season record, which was tainted by a slew of injuries.

Coach Ray Harper said if his guys stay healthy this year, this team could be even better.

“We got a glimpse of that a couple weeks ago,” Harper said. “(Junior forward) George Fant missed four days of practice, and we didn’t miss a beat. We were able to move some people around. I don’t know if that was the case in the last couple of seasons.”

The Sun Belt might be missing a few familiar faces — I can’t be the only one disappointed we won’t see a WKU vs. Middle Tennessee game this year — but the Toppers have the talent to play with anyone in the conference.

Guard T.J. Price and forward George Fant, the last two Sun Belt tournament MVPs, are juniors now and should be set to lead a team that lost just one major contributor, Jamal Crook, from a season ago.

The Sun Belt will be no cakewalk this season, though. Georgia State is laden with impressive transfers, including former University of Kentucky point guard Ryan Harrow. Louisiana-Lafayette has two All-Sun Belt candidates in point guard Elfrid Payton and forward Shawn Long, and Harper said Arkansas State and South Alabama will be a challenge as well.

Still, last season the Toppers were able to sneak up on teams in the tournament due to a lackluster regular season — with WKU winning the last two Sun Belt tournaments, the Toppers won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year.

The Lady Toppers, meanwhile, will have to follow up on a year where they snuck up on everyone.

Last year’s success has raised expectations around the team — WKU was picked to finish No. 2 in the Sun Belt this year and received four of 10 possible first place votes.

Coach Michelle Clark-Heard, in her second season with the program, said her team, anchored by two All-American candidates in junior guard Alexis Govan and junior forward Chastity Gooch, is more focused on improving than winning the Sun Belt.

“We are just trying to get better each and every day,” she said. “We’re excited about the momentum headed into the season and happy with the opportunity to do some great things.”

Win, lose or draw, the two teams should provide good competition and good entertainment for the entire 2013-14 season. That’s a much better outlook than the teams had a year ago.