Stephens: WKU’s struggles aren’t Harper’s fault

Head coach Ray Harper shouts to his team during the game. WKU defeated Austin Peay 74-54.

Brad Stephens

All honeymoons come to an end sooner or later.

For men’s basketball coach Ray Harper, his honeymoon with some Topper fans has ended before he’s even finished his first full season.

At this time last year, Harper was so popular fans stapled pictures of his face to popsicle sticks — thus creating the “Harper head.” That popularity among the WKU was a big reason he was promoted from interim coach to full-time coach in February.

Following that came his “only just begun” speech after the Middle Tennessee win, the four-games-in-four-days run through the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and an NCAA Tournament win.

It’s not easy to live up to such a dramatic first act, but that’s exactly what some fans expected the Toppers to do this year.

Instead, WKU’s season is stuck in neutral.

The Toppers (11-11, 5-6 SBC) have lost five of six since the New Year, most recently falling 72-53 to arch-rival MTSU Saturday in Murfreesboro.

Rebounding plagued WKU in a Jan. 12 loss to Florida Atlantic. Poor defense was the culprit Jan. 5 in a loss to Arkansas State.

But for the most part, it’s been a non-existent offense that’s done in the Toppers. They’ve scored less than 70 points in all five losses during the stretch.

If you’re going to lose, some would say, at least score points and be entertaining.

Lately though, WKU games have been about as exciting as the rest of the programming on the PBS affiliate that broadcasts the games.

Some of those struggles can be attributed to a well-documented injury list — especially the broken foot that’s kept senior point guard Jamal Crook out since mid-December.

A general lack of talent, especially of players who can create their own offense, is also to blame.

Outside of T.J Price, Brandon Harris and George Fant, who on this team could you see being a top offensive option for a good Division I basketball team?

But some of the blame is starting to seep over to Harper, the man in charge of these Toppers.

A large portion of the WKU fan base expects at least 20 wins, a conference title and an NCAA Tournament berth every year. When the Toppers are having a down season and aren’t living up to those expectations, the first person to get the blame is the head coach.

While no one is yet calling for Harper to be fired, his approval rating among the WKU faithful isn’t at the level it was 10 months ago.

To those that getting a little antsy with Harper’s program, the key word is patience.

Overhauling a program takes more than one offseason. In fact it’s going to take a few years for Harper to completely shape the roster to his own liking.

His critics argue that he’s just as responsible for the current state of the Toppers’ roster as the coach he replaced, Ken McDonald, because he was one of the biggest recruiters on McDonald’s staff. There were a long line of recruits in that era that didn’t pan out for various reasons.

But McDonald still had the final say on whether or not a prospect got a scholarship. That last word in recruiting now belongs to Harper.

Three years from now, he’ll have a roster full of players to which he was responsible for giving scholarships. At the moment he’s just doing the best he can with the hand he was dealt.

Harper has also built some job security with a resume that includes two NCAA Division II and two NAIA national titles. He’s one of the most accomplished head coaches in college basketball, even if his accolades came on the lower levels of the sport.

“Ray Harper is as good a coach as there is in the country,” ESPN analyst Mark Adams said during Saturday’s game. “People just don’t know it yet.”

In a few years, when he’s built the roster to his liking and when WKU isn’t going through an injury-plagued year like this, people will know it.

Topper fans just have to be patient and give Harper a chance to get there.