Toppers beginning quest for third straight Sun Belt title

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

Two years ago, WKU made a midseason coaching change before catching fire in March and winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. Last season, the injury-plagued Toppers got healthy late and surprised teams en route to their second straight conference title.

It won’t matter what happens in the regular season this year — other Sun Belt teams are going to know what the Toppers are capable of in the conference tournament in March.

Coach Ray Harper isn’t worried about other teams putting a target on WKU’s back, though. He said he’s seen polls that project the team to finish as low as fourth or fifth.

“I don’t think we have a target on our back, I think the people who have a target are usually picked to win the league,” he said. “We’re going to go about our business on a daily basis to try to get better each day, whether we’re picked first or eighth, and that’s just how we conduct business. I think these guys have been really good about being consistent each day with their work ethic and understanding that we’ve got a long way to go and our goal is to get better every day.”

Harper made those comments on Oct. 19, but on Wednesday, the Sun Belt coaches showed how they felt about the Toppers by selecting them as the preseason conference favorite. Junior guard T.J. Price was voted to the Sun Belt first team, while junior forward George Fant earned a spot on the second team.

Harper may have said he doesn’t think WKU is the best team in the league, but he admitted this year’s team has some pieces the Toppers desperately lacked last year.

The coach said this is one of the most athletic teams he’s coached, with high-flying junior guard Trency Jackson, a transfer from Texas Tech eligible to join the team in December, giving WKU new ability on the press and on defense.

He said he is also ready to see sophomore forward Nigel Snipes, who redshirted last season after injuring his knee in the offseason, get back on the court with his teammates.

“He gives us that athletic wing that we desperately missed last season,” Harper said. “We need for Nigel to be aggressive on both ends of the floor … He’s a kid who did not play a lot as a freshman, and missed all of last season so he doesn’t have a lot of game experience, but he’ll find himself on the floor early and hopefully he responds.”

Snipes said even if he only plays for five minutes a game, he is ready to help the team again.

“Last year I could only contribute with my voice — it hurt, you know?” he said at Media Day. “I mean, I’m just happy with whatever I can get.”

Harper also said he was pleased with the effort of sophomore center Aleksej Rostov over the summer, calling him the most improved player on the roster.

Rostov took over as WKU’s starting center at the end of the year last season and helped lead the Toppers through the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

He said he’s not thinking about other teams in the league coming for revenge this year.

“I’m not worried about other teams think about us,” Rostov said. “We just have to focus on what we have to — our goals. We won a title last year and the year before, so that’s the goal.”