Toppers playing up-tempo under Harper

Interim coach Ray Harper talks to players in a huddle during the men’s basketball game against Troy on Saturday, Jan. 7 in Diddle Arena. Harper is the interim replacement for former Head Coach Ken McDonald. WKU lost during Harper’s first game, 67-65.

Cole Claybourn

With a new coach often comes a new identity for a team.

That’s no different with WKU basketball, as the Toppers have embraced a new personality four games into Interim Head Coach Ray Harper’s tenure.

As soon as Harper took over, WKU shed its old offensive approach of running half-court sets and a slower tempo for a much faster-paced, run-and-gun style of play.

“I think it’s a must for good basketball teams to get good shots, hit easy buckets because of your defense,” Harper said. “I think a way we get easy baskets is because of our defense creating bad shots that will lead us to some transition baskets getting out and running — we got some of those today. You can’t continually play in the half-court.”

The new style made its debut on Jan. 7 against Troy — Harper’s first game as head coach after replacing Ken McDonald, who was fired on Jan. 6 after a 5-11 start to the season.

The results haven’t paid dividends in the win column early on quite like Harper and the players would like, as WKU has gone 1-3 under Harper, though two losses came against North Texas and Denver — two of the top teams in the Sun Belt Conference.

But statistically, improvements are there.

Heading into Harper’s first game, WKU was averaging 62 points per game. The Toppers have surpassed that mark in each of Harper’s four games.

In WKU’s 65-53 win over Arkansas-Little Rock on Saturday, the Toppers forced the Trojans into 17 turnovers which they turned into 23 points.

It’s all a part of Harper’s idea that his team should be the tougher team, a concept he presented to fans and media the day he was introduced as interim coach.

“We used the words ‘aggressive’ and ‘fast’ I think more than we ever have since I’ve been here,” freshman forward Vinny Zollo said after WKU’s loss to Troy on Jan. 7. “I think his big stress point would be, ‘Let’s come out, let’s be the aggressor. Let’s put the other team on their heels. Let’s do what they’ve been doing to us.’ I really think that’s direction he wants to put us in.”

Doing so will help WKU adjust to whatever their opponent throws at them, Harper said.

“We want to be that basketball team that can play any way you want to play,” he said. “You want to play real fast? We can play that way. You want to grind it out? We’re a better team grinding it out than you.”

Perhaps the most important thing Harper has done since taking over as head coach is instill excitement into a fan base that has seen one of the NCAA’s winningest programs fall to irrelevance the past two seasons.

The announced attendance at McDonald’s final game at WKU,  a 72-70 Topper loss to Louisiana-Lafayette on Jan. 5, was 2,137. Athletics Director Ross Bjork said that total was actually closer to 1,800 fans because the announced figure was “bumped up.”

Two nights later 5,172 people were in Diddle Arena to see WKU and its new look, bringing with them high hopes that Harper could help guide the program back to its winning ways.

Even after two double-digit road losses, 4,254 showed up to Saturday’s game. So with that, the two highest home attendance totals this season have come in Harper’s first two games.

Bjork and President Gary Ransdell have both said Harper will “certainly” be included as a candidate for the full-time head coaching position, and Ransdell said Harper’s early tenure has been a good change of pace.

“It’s begun to breathe new life into the program,” Ransdell said.