Men’s Basketball Notes: Future proves bright for WKU

Freshman guard T.J. Price and sophomore forward Kene Anyigbo try to take the ball away from a UK player during the first round NCAA tournament game between WKU and UK at the YUM! Center in Louisville Thursday night. UK led WKU 45-26 at halftime.

Cole Claybourn

LOUISVILLE — The future is bright for WKU basketball. That’s what anyone associated with the program would say after the way the 2011-2012 season ended.

A season that looked to be all but in the books after a 5-14 start was revitalized by a coaching change and a group of players who had one mission on their mind — to make the NCAA Tournament.

They accomplished their goal, and did so with what was mostly a team of freshmen and underclassmen.

“It was a great group. The future is bright,” Head Coach Ray Harper said. “We’ve got a lot of young kids…And they have a foundation. Derrick (Gordon) and T.J. (Price) and George (Fant) — 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.”

Three out WKU’s top four scorers — Gordon, Fant and Price — are all freshmen, and only one player, senior guard Kahlil McDonald, will leave the team provide no one transfers.

Now with four games in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and two NCAA Tournament games under their belt, this young Topper team has plenty of experience on which to build.

“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.

Gordon and Price talked about the bright future of WKU basketball.

Gordon expressed his desires to make the Toppers a Top 25 team.

“Still got three more years, so it’s going to be big things,” he said.

UK Head Coach John Calipari was impressed by WKU and said he too expects big things from this freshmen class.

“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,” Calipari said. “Their freshmen gave us as much problems as anybody. So my hat’s off to Western.”

Add in an entire offseason of work for this young team, plus junior guard Caden Dickerson, sophomore forward Stephon Drane and freshman guard Kevin Kaspar returning to the mix, the 2012-2013 season may resemble the last few weeks for WKU — lots of winning.

“I’m excited about where we’re going,” Harper said. “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.”

Gordon and Kidd-Gilcrhist reunite once again

Derrick Gordon took a second to swallow the defeat that UK had just handed his team to end the season.

But then the freshman from St. Patrick High School (N.J.) walked over to mid-court and embraced his former teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

It was the first time the two had seen each other since high school.

The duo came up one win short of a state championship and mythical national championship, so now after losing to Kidd-Gilchrist, Gordon said he hopes his friend can keep winning.

“That’s like my brother,” he said. “One of us had to lose. We played on the No. 1 team in the country last year and lost to St. Anthony’s and we both was hurt. I do wish him the best of luck and hope he does win it all.

McDonald plays final game as Topper

Over the past few weeks, Kahlil McDonald embraced the leadership role on a young Topper team. He essentially needed to as the team’s only senior.

He saw his fair share of struggles during his two-year career at WKU, but he turned it on when it mattered most — in the postseason.

His efforts in the Sun Belt Tournament earned him all-Tournament honors.

As he exited the court one last time in a WKU uniform as Thursday’s game against UK neared its end, McDonald buried his head in Harper’s arms and his coach whispered a message in his ear.

“Thank you. Thank you for the last three or four weeks, just being the type of senior I want him to be,” Harper said to McDonald. “You want to go out the right way. You’re remembered by how you finish.”

Other notes:

-Derrick Gordon became the first freshman in WKU history to lead the team in scoring since freshmen became eligible in 1972-73. He finished with an 11.7 points per game average. He finishes with 412 points — 49 short of Courtney Lee’s record of 461 as a freshman in 2004-2005.

-Gordon, who started all 35 games for WKU this season, also led the team in rebounding with 6.7 per game. He’s the first freshman to do so since Jeremy Evans did it in 2006-2007

-George Fant scored 321 points this season, good enough for seventh all-time for freshman. T.J. Price scored 270 points, to rank eighth on that list.

-The 2011-2012 team now sits at second all-time in school history with 146 blocked shots.