Ray Harper, coach of the WKU men’s basketball team, and Michelle Clark-Heard, coach of the women’s basketball team, both know the value of rebounding.
While their names won’t appear on any stat sheet, both have been responsible for a major rebound in the WKU basketball programs this year.
On Feb. 1, 2012, the Lady Toppers had a dismal 6-15 record on the year and were on their way to a 9-21 record, the worst in more than 30 years for the traditionally strong WKU women’s basketball program. Mary Taylor Cowles, who had coached the team for 10 seasons, was let go at the end of they year.
The men’s basketball team was in an even worse state of disarray at the time. Sitting at 7-15 with an uncertain future at the head of the team, WKU was struggling in the wake of former coach Ken McDonald’s midseason dismissal.
One year later, both programs have risen to new heights under the direction of new coaches.
Heard has had more success on paper this season than Harper, but that’s no insult — she’s in the middle of one of the biggest turn-around jobs in the NCAA this year.
The Lady Toppers currently sit at 16-5, good for No. 3 in the Sun Belt Conference, and look like they could compete for a conference crown and NCAA Tournament berth. They are averaging 70.3 points per game — a far cry from last season’s average of 56.3 per game.
The numbers speak for themselves, athletics director Todd Stewart said.
“I don’t know if you could honestly choose a word that would overstate the job that coach Heard has done,” Stewart said.
The way the Lady Toppers are winning is just as notable as their record. Expectations were low when Heard took over. She inherited a roster without a player over 6-foot-1 and has had to make due with a guard-centric lineup with little post presence outside of sophomore forward Chastity Gooch.
The average age of the roster also makes the midseason record more impressive. The Lady Topper roster is filled with underclassmen — junior guard Chaney Means is the only player that’s been with the team for more than two years.
Heard said that strong, youthful foundation on the team is what excites her most about her first year at WKU.
“We’re working for the future, but we don’t just want this success for this year,” Heard said. “This is something that we want to continue to keep building on.”
Stewart, also in his first full year running WKU’s athletic program, said he has bright hopes for the future of Heard’s Lady Toppers.
With 11 scholarship players this season, she can bring in up to four players on scholarship next year.
“I think with where we are right now as a program and what we have coming in, she clearly has us back on the right path,” Stewart said.
Despite a hot start, the men’s basketball team has not matched the success of the Lady Toppers in Harper’s first full season as head coach.
The way the Toppers finished last season bought Harper goodwill from the fans and time to implement his system, though.
After McDonald was fired on Jan. 6 last season, Harper guided WKU to four consecutive wins in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and earned an NCAA Tournament win over Mississippi Valley State before falling to Kentucky, the eventual national champion.
Stewart said Harper’s most impressive achievement was the fact that he had so much success after taking over as coach midseason.
“Interim coaches, historically, have not really improved on what they’ve inherited,” he said. “For him to turn that around and for us to become only the second team in the history of the conference to win four games in four days and win the conference tournament, then win an NCAA Tournament game was just a tremendous achievement.”
Harper and the Toppers had a good start but have since fallen to a middling record in the Sun Belt. WKU had lost five of its last six games going into Thursday’s game against Troy, which was played after the Herald’s press deadline.
Injuries have plagued the team — senior point guard Jamal Crook broke his foot and hasn’t played since the start of December while several other players have been in and out of the lineup smaller injuries.
“I think we’ve had more changes in the lineup this season than any other year I’ve coached,” Harper said.
The recent dip in production didn’t stop sophomore guard T.J. Price from heaping praise on his coach.
“Coach, he’s one of the great coaches that you always wanted,” Price said. “When we lose, he’ll always take responsibility for it, but when we win he puts it on us that we did it. I mean, that’s the type of coach that you want.”