Kansas assistant Townsend faces alma mater WKU Friday

Brad Stephens

Kurtis Townsend’s ties with WKU run deep.

Townsend met his wife, Linda, during their time together as WKU students.

He played point guard for the Toppers from 1978-80 under one the last four decades’ most successful college coaches, Gene Keady.

Townsend earned a degree in recreation from WKU in 1982 after a one-year stint playing in the Continental Basketball Association.

And Friday, the current Kansas assistant will hope to launch his second national championship run against against the Toppers.

Townsend will be on the Jayahwks bench Friday at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., when South Region No. 1 seed Kansas takes on No. 16 seed WKU (8:50 p.m., TNT).

The Kansas assistant, now in his ninth year on coach Bill Self’s staff, helped the Jayhawks cut down the nets after beating Memphis for the 2008 title. Kansas also advanced to the national championship game last season, falling to Kentucky.

Now he and Kansas (29-5) are out to start another run to the title. Opening that run against WKU is a unique opportunity for Townsend, he said.

“My wife was there at the (Selection Show) watch party and I met her at Western,” Townsend said. “We both kind of smiled and got a kick out of it… It’s a very special place to me.”

Self used the match-up announcement as a chance to kid around with his team about one of their assistants.

Self said he told his team: ‘Hey this is Western Kentucky, this is their record, this is the league they play in. Everybody knows their all-time greatest player to play there?’

“They said, ‘No, who was it?’

“I said, ‘‘Well, it was coach Townsend!’

“Everybody starts laughing, because I don’t think Kurt was by any stretch. He did love his time there and he does love his alma mater, but he won’t have as much love for them this week, I don’t think.”

Townsend took an indirect route to Bowling Green. The San Jose, Calif., native played two years at Menlo (Calif.) Junior College. While at Menlo he earned first team all-state and All-America honorable mention honors in 1978.

He then went to Bowling Green, arriving at the same time as Keady, who took over the Toppers after previous coach Jim Richards stepped down.

Townsend played two years with the Toppers. In his junior year WKU’s season ended with a controversial 78-77 loss to Eastern Kentucky in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.

One year later the Toppers won the OVC Tournament title, earning the right to host an NCAA Tournament game. Townsend’s WKU team lost 89-85 in double overtime to Virginia Tech in that game.

Townsend maintained friendships with several Topper players and coaches, including Keady and then-assistant coach Clem Haskins. The lessons learned from relationship with Keady were especially helpful to his own coaching career, he said.

“Toughness,” Townsend said. “Everything was about being tougher than everyone else not only mentally but physically and emotionally you just had to be tougher than everybody. He kind of had a football mentality toward the game.”

Now those attributes are some of the main reasons Kansas is a national title contender. The Jayhawks lead Division I in defensive field goal shooting, holding opponents to a 36 percent clip from the floor.

“Defensively we’ve led the country in defensive field goal percentage six of the last nine years I’ve been here,” Townsend said. “We’ve always been Top 10. That was a philosophy from Coach Keady I’ve always believed in is defense and rebounding wins games for you.”

Townsend has spent his week scouting the Toppers (20-15) and helping Self get the Jayhawks ready for Friday’s game. After watching tape of WKU’s run through the Sun Belt Conference Tournament he was especially complimentary of guards T.J. Price and Jamal Crook and forward George Fant.

How Kansas does against that trio may determine if he can pull off a win against his alma mater, he said.

“I think they’re really solid defensively and they’ve got good athletes,” Townsend said. “I can see why they got hot at the end.”

Whatever the outcome of Friday’s game, there are plenty of parallels between the Kansas and WKU programs, Townsend said.

The Jayhawks are the No. 2 winningest program in Division I history, holding claim to 2,070 victories. WKU ranks No. 18 with 1,655 wins.

As far as winning percentage is concerned, Kansas ranks No. 3 (.720) and the Toppers rank No. 7 (.667).

“(Kansas) had James Naismith, who invented the game, as our first coach and Phog Allen,” Townsend said. “I remember them talking about E.A. Diddle like that when I was at Western.

“It’s a lot of similarities as far as the love for basketball and the tradition. It reminds me a lot of Bowling Green.”