Toppers look to reload after second straight NCAA Tournament

Lucas Aulbach

Coach Ray Harper was already thinking of next season at the press conference after WKU’s loss to Kansas in the NCAA Tournament Friday.

The Toppers are losing two seniors — guard Jamal Crook and guard Marcus Vasquez — but should return much of the roster that has propelled them to two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

Still, some big shoes will need to be filled. A four-year player for the Toppers, Crook was one of the most important pieces of the puzzle for this season — WKU went 17-7 with Crook in the lineup this year and 3-9 without him.

Harper got a little emotional at the postgame press conference when he talked about Crook.

“I told Jamal this might be the end of his college career, but his journey has just begun,” he said. “He knows we’ll be there every step of the way as he goes along this journey.

“I can remember when he came in as a freshman, he weighed about 150 pounds, and how much he’s grown up. He led us to two straight NCAA tournaments and helped get this basketball program back on track.”

Crook said while he’s finished helping WKU as a player, he’s ready to start supporting it as a fan.

” I’m interested in seeing them in the future because I know how hard these guys can work,” Crook said. “I’ve been through it with them. When they’re down, in the back of their heads, I know they have that fight in them. I can’t wait to watch them in the future.”

WKU will bring back current sophomore guard Kevin Kaspar to run the point next season, and point guard Chris Harrison-Docks, a transfer from Butler, will join the team in December.

A year to practice should help the WKU starting lineup, which was composed of one senior, one junior, two sophomores and a freshman at the end of the season.

Guard T.J. Price and forward George Fant, both sophomores this year, will have a chance to improve over the offseason while junior guard Caden Dickerson will be able to take time to heal his right shoulder, which he separated in November and ailed him all season.

Harper seemed most excited about freshman center Aleksejs Rostov, whose playing time picked up considerably after center Teeng Akol was dismissed from the team in late February. The freshman had 11 points in 27 minutes of play against the Jayhawks Friday.

The coach said he wants Rostov to spend his time this summer bulking up in preparation for an even bigger role this season.

” I’m looking at 25 more pounds on him in the summer,” Harper said. “Boy, I get excited thinking about that.”

Rostov, who came to WKU from Latvia, said he enjoyed his first season in a Topper uniform.

“It was a tough journey, but I just believed in the whole team and the coaching staff,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it ends at this stage, we will keep working and see what we can get next year.”

Two years of tournament experience should help the Toppers moving forward.

Harper said he hopes the time in the tournament helps his team in coming seasons.

” Some of these guys — Aleks (Rostov), our freshman, he got a taste of it,” Harper said. “Now my sophomores have gotten a taste of it twice. Next year should be a lot of fun.”