Stephens: Both basketball programs headed in right direction

Brad Stephens

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — None of this really seemed possible 15 months ago.

WKU’s men’s basketball program was spinning its wheels under coach Ken McDonald, going 5-11 and getting beat by the likes of Furman and IUPUI. The Toppers were destined for a third straight year with no postseason.

The women’s basketball program was in the middle of what turned out to be a 9-21 season, its worst in decades. Coach Mary Taylor Cowles’ Lady Toppers had slipped from being a national power to being mediocre to being just unwatchable.

It’s hard to believe all of that was really just more than a year ago.

Friday, coach Ray Harper’s men’s basketball team came within seven points of pulling what would’ve been, seed-wise, the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history. The South No. 16 seed Toppers led No. 1 seed Kansas at halftime, 31-30, and hung with the Jayhawks throughout the second half before finally falling 64-57 at the Sprint Center.

The Toppers (20-16) probably could’ve taken down Kansas if WKU had shot better than 20.5 percent (8-of-39) in the second half.

While WKU fans were watching the action in Kansas City, an even more improbable team was on a bus to Auburn, Ala., on a mission to keep its impressive season alive.

The Lady Toppers scored a thrilling 88-77 win over East Carolina Thursday in Diddle Arena in the first round of the WNIT. That earned WKU’s women a trip to Auburn Sunday for a chance to advance to the WNIT Sweet 16.

Coach Michelle Clark-Heard’s Lady Toppers (22-11) fell 84-66, ending a season that far surpassed anyone’s preseason expectations.

The men were promoted this season with the slogan “We’ve only just begun.” The women’s theme was “On the rise.”

Both those slogans are accurate, and that’s a good thing for WKU and its fans.

The Topper men are now 9-2 in the postseason under Harper. The nine wins cover two straight four-games-in-four-days runs through the Sun Belt Conference and a First Four win last year over Mississippi Valley State. The two losses both came to NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeds — eventual champ Kentucky last March and Kansas Friday.

WKU features the last two Sun Belt Tournament Most Outstanding Player award winners on its roster — guard T.J. Price and Fant. Both are sophomores that have two years left to do even more.

Center Aleksejs Rostov improved more from the first game to the end of the season than any player in recent WKU history. He brings the shooting skills of the prototypical “European big man” and combines them with strength and toughness that allow him to bang in the post and get rebounds on the Division I level. He’s also just a freshman.

Guard Brandon Harris, the guy who carried WKU during much of the year, will have another year. So will a (hopefully) healthy Caden Dickerson. Nigel Snipes, who missed the year with an ACL tear, and transfers Chris Harrison-Docks and Trency Jackson will add athleticism to the roster.

And of course there’s Harper, a former national championship coach on the Division II and NAIA levels that out-coached Kansas’ Bill Self Friday at the Sprint Center.

The only guy that won’t be back is point guard Jamal Crook, who played his final game against the Jayhawks. But he’s as excited for the program’s future as anyone else, he said.

“The day Coach Harp took over, I knew that this program was going to be taken up another notch,” Crook said. “I can’t wait to watch them in the future.”

Whereas the men lose Crook, the women don’t lose anyone.

Chastity Gooch and Alexis Govan, both of whom were First Team-All Sun Belt player this season, have two years left. Key guards Bianca McGee and Chaney Means both have another season. Freshmen like Micah Jones, LeAsia Wright and Jalynn McClain will only get better.

Meanwhile Heard addressed WKU’s big problems, its lack of depth and size, with a four-player signing class that comes to town this fall. Three of the players are 6-foot-1 or taller.

“I’m just super-excited for this team and proud of them,” Heard said Sunday. “It’s been a long season but it’s been a great season. I hate that it had to end but we’re going to continue to keep fighting so we can get better for the future.”

Expect Harper’s teams to make plenty of future trips to the NCAA Tournament and expect them to start doing it as a 10 or 11-seed rather than a No. 16.

Expect Clark-Heard’s teams to also make the postseason on a regular basis and expect those trips not to be to the WNIT, but rather to the NCAA Tournament.

WKU fans should enjoy the future with two programs trending upward.

The best has yet to come for the Toppers and Lady Toppers.