Harper, Toppers excited for ‘bright’ future

Freshman guard Derrick Gordon catches a pass during their first-round NCAA tournament game between WKU and UK at the YUM! Center in Louisville on Thursday. UK beat WKU 81-66.

Cole Claybourn

Thursday’s loss to No. 1 Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament ignited the start of the offseason in preparation for what looks to be a promising 2012-2013 season for the Toppers.

The only player set to leave is senior guard Kahlil McDonald, meaning WKU’s top two scorers and rebounders — freshman guard Derrick Gordon and freshman forward George Fant — will be back to lead the offense.

With a full offseason to work with his young group, Head Coach Ray Harper is excited about what lies ahead for his team.

“The future is bright,” Harper said. “We’ve got a lot of young kids … and they have a foundation. Derrick and T.J. (Price) and George — you talk about three freshmen that just went up against the No. 1 team in the country, and they didn’t back down one step.”

Price, who torched UK for 21 points on Thursday, will return with a nine points per game average. That will be complemented by junior guard Jamal Crook, who broke out of his shell this season, shedding his facilitator role to become more of a scorer and finish with an 8.5 points per game average.

WKU played nearly the entire season without the services of junior guard Caden Dickerson and sophomore forward Stephon Drane.

Dickerson, who led the team in 3-point shooting his first two years, nursed a sore shoulder all season before opting for surgery that sidelined him the rest of the season.

Drane, who played in 18 games during his freshman season, played just four minutes this season due to a strained posterior cruciate ligament that hobbled him since September.

Then, on Jan. 21, WKU lost freshman guard Kevin Kaspar for the rest of the season due to a torn ACL, limiting WKU’s options at the point guard position.

Harper said he’s excited all three players will be able to come back next season and be a part of the mix.

WKU has a lot of filled seats to look forward to as well.

This season looked to be all but over after the Toppers started out 5-14, but thanks to a mid-season coaching change and an improbable postseason run, Diddle Arena is no longer a dormant building, and fan support is as high as it’s been in a few years.

“They’ve got a good program. I would imagine season tickets will sell out with what you saw because you’re playing three freshmen out there, playing young players,” UK Head Coach John Calipari said after Thursday’s game. “Their freshmen gave us as much problems as anybody. So my hat’s off to Western.”

On the court will be a much more experienced team.

With four Sun Belt Conference Tournament games and now two NCAA Tournament games, one in front of a sold out KFC Yum! Center crowd, Harper said his players will know what to expect next March.

“As they go on in their careers, they can look back on this experience and really help any new guys that we may have in the program about how we do things and how we compete,” Harper said.

The tournament appearance didn’t come as a surprise to Gordon, who has talked about making the tournament even in his freshman year ever since he committed to WKU when he was a sophomore in high school.

Now his expectations are even higher, starting with appearances in the Top 25.

“We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing and keep getting better and better,” he said. “We’ve still got three more years left, so it’s going to be big things ahead.”

With so much returning, next season may resemble what the last few weeks have looked like at WKU — lots of winning.

“I’m excited about where we’re going,” Harper said Thursday. “Obviously disappointed about tonight’s loss, but I couldn’t be happier to walk in that locker room with those guys. I’m going back with the right team.”