COLUMN: Ray Harper was exactly what WKU needed

Head Coach Ray Harper motions to his players 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.

Brad Stephens

LOUISVILLE — They finished 16-19.

They didn’t get a single player on the top two all-conference teams.

They didn’t hit a Ty Rogers buzzer-beater, didn’t get to the Final Four and they didn’t beat Kentucky.

But what Ray Harper and the 2011-2012 Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers did accomplish will be remembered for years in Bowling Green.

We thought Harper had a rebuilding project on his hands when he was promoted to interim head coach on Jan. 6.

He was handed the keys to a car full of a ragtag underachievers whose game was more YMCA than Division I under Ken McDonald.

A highly-regarded freshmen class wasn’t saving the day like everyone had assumed it would happen.

An unassuming group of upperclassmen weren’t doing much either.

Fans were mad, or at least the ones that still cared.

Harper, or whoever would become the permanent head coach, was going to need to work recruiting wonders to keep players from leaving, much less to bring in new ones, it was assumed.

As for this season? Forget about it, just would play out the last two months and pick up the pieces.

That easily could’ve happened.

Ray Harper didn’t let it.

He lit a fire under a Topper team which desperately needed some motivation.

Harper had WKU players making his practices sound like Denzel Washington’s two-a-days from “Remember the Titans.”

Run, run some more, and after you get done puking, run again.

And the improvements didn’t all come at once.

There were still some late game struggles, some bad losses, some moments of reverting back to McDonald-era ways.

But Harper never gave up on his players, and in return, the administration didn’t give up on Harper.

He was named permanent head coach on Feb. 19.

Seven wins and one Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship later, WKU was playing the nation’s No. 1 team in the NCAA Tournament in front of more than 20,000 fans and millions more watching at home on national TV.

After looking at what Harper managed to do with this year’s Toppers, it becomes clear it wasn’t a rebuilding project this program needed. It was revitalizing project.

WKU needed a coach to stroll out of the Diddle Arena tunnel before every home game, left hand in pocket, walking cooly to the bench as fans cheered.

WKU needed a coach to inspire a sellout against chief rival Middle Tennessee State, lead the team to an upset then grab the microphone after the game and tell the crowd, “We’ve only just begun.”

WKU needed a coach to shrug his shoulders when pestered with questions about his team being fatigued at the Sun Belt Tournament.

WKU needed a coach to look at his players late in the Sun Belt Championship when they cut a 13-point North Texas lead to two points in the blink of an eye and joke that they were coming back too quickly.

WKU needed a coach whose genuine dream was to coach the Toppers, not anyone else.

They’ve found that man in Ray Harper.

The Toppers may be done this year, but they’ll be back.

Derrick Gordon, T.J. Price, George Fant, they’re all freshmen.

They have three years left to get stronger, hone their skills and become more mentally adapted to Harper’s system.

Jamal Crook will have a whole summer to learn more of Harper’s system, and how to be a star Sun Belt point guard.

Guys like Teeng Akol, O’Karo Akamune and Vinny Zollo will have six more months to get better.

Other than Kahlil McDonald, who’s graduating, everyone else will be back.

Under Harper WKU can go back to being a school that’s in the tournament every year, a team that wins 20-plus games every year and a team that can hang with squads like the Kentucky team it played on Thursday night.

And if there’s a coach that can harness a team’s potential, it’s Harper.

“We’ve still got three more years left,” Gordon said after the loss. “We’re going to do great things.”

If this season is any indication, then they absolutely will.