Stephens: Plenty to watch this year in Act II for WKU

Western Kentucky’s O’Karo Akamune,of Miami,FL, wrestles a ball away from Campbellville’s Darius Clement, of Bowling Green, Ky. during their game Moday night at EA Diddle Arena.

Brad Stephens

Talk about setting the bar high.

All coach Ray Harper and WKU did this spring was turn around a 5-14 season, make a run to the Sun Belt Conference Tournament title and notch the Toppers’ first NCAA Tournament win since 2009.

It was a run that both re-energized a dormant fan base and quieted critics that disagreed with Harper’s promotion from interim head coach to full-time head coach in February.

It also made everyone excited to see what’s going to happen this year in Act II of Harper and the Toppers.

It’ll be hard for WKU to follow up the drama of this spring, but there will still be plenty of interesting story lines to follow this year.

Here are a few that I’ll be watching:

How much will the Toppers miss Derrick Gordon?

Derrick Gordon, the self-proclaimed “Mr. Hilltopper,” and Vinny Zollo both transferred from WKU’s program soon after the end of last season.

Between the two, Gordon will be the one more missed on the court this season.

He was a high-energy guy who was a bulldog on the defensive end, was explosive cutting to the basket and was an aggressive rebounder from the guard position.

But he had some drawbacks as well — notably a little bit of an ego and a streaky shooting ability.

Some games, Gordon could threaten for a double-double. Other times, he could go 1-of-6 from the three-point line and almost become an offensive liability.

No one player will replace Gordon. Rather, it’ll be the collective efforts of guys like sophomore T.J. Price, redshirt junior Caden Dickerson and junior newcomer Brandon Harris.

If Harris can live up to his defensive promise of “no buckets,” if Dickerson can provide clutch shooting and steady defense, and if Price can continue his evolution into one of the Sun Belt’s best shooting guards, then those Hilltoppers should do just fine making up for “Mr. Hilltopper.”

Will any of the new guys make an impact?

This year’s newcomers aren’t coming to Bowling Green with quite the hype and expectations of last year’s George Fant-Gordon-Price group.

It’s unlikely that any of this year’s new guys (JUCO transfer Harris, scholarship freshmen Eddie Alcantara and Aleksejs Rostov, and walk-on freshman Percy Blade) will become “the guy” right away.

But they could develop into some key role players.

Harris and Rostov both started Monday in WKU’s exhibition against Campbellsville, and while neither had an especially remarkable game against the overmatched Tigers, they showed they’d done the work in practice and earned the respect of their coach enough to where they started a game.

Harper has already said he doesn’t expect Alcantara, who was slowed by injury throughout the offseason, to be 100 percent until later this year.

And while Blade will develop during his time at WKU, it’s unrealistic to think of a freshman walk-on getting lots of playing time this year, barring injury to others.

Outside of Harris, who will likely be either a starter or oft-used bench player, WKU may not rely on newcomers this year as much as in years past.

What’s going to happen Dec. 16-22?

The meat of WKU’s non-conference schedule lies in three games away from Diddle Arena over a six-day span in December.

First comes a rivalry game on the road Dec. 16 against Murray State, a team that lost just two games all last season.

Two days later, the Toppers will head to Richmond, Va., to play Virginia Commonwealth, a school two years removed from a trip to the Final Four.

Finally, on Dec. 22, WKU will play AP Preseason No. 2 Louisville in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.

Harper told the Bowling Green Daily News over the summer that playing three games against three quality opponents in three states over a six-day span is “not an ideal situation.” That might be an understatement.

If WKU can either win two of those three games — or just beat Louisville — most Topper fans will be happy.

But how WKU does during that stretch — the toughest of its non-conference season — will have a big impact on its at-large NCAA tournament berth possibilities should the Toppers have a good year but fail to win the Sun Belt.

Obviously, there will be a lot more story lines to watch, especially the continued development of senior big man Teeng Akol and the potential of Fant to become one the league’s best power forwards.

No matter what happens in 2012-2013, it probably won’t match the drama that marked the end of last year.

But with the momentum from last year and potential for bigger things to come, Act II could be just as fun.