This season’s Toppers a young, defensive-minded team

Cole Claybourn

The first thing many people might notice about this year’s version of the Toppers is their youth. 

But freshman guard Derrick Gordon hopes that’s not the only thing that sticks out.

“We’re defensive-minded,” Gordon said. “That’s what’s going to win us a lot of games.”

This year’s team features nine newcomers — seven freshmen and two junior college transfers.

On top of that, the Toppers will have to replace 66 percent of their scoring from last year’s team. The team’s leading returning scorers, lone senior guard Kahlil McDonald and junior guard Caden Dickerson, averaged just 6.7 and 6.0 points per game respectively last season.

So to offset what the team lost offensively, McDonald said the team has to focus on shutting other teams down.

“Defense is going to bring offense,” he said. “We play D, it makes the offense easier. We’re going to play hard and it’s going to trickle right down the line.”

Head Coach Ken McDonald started three freshmen — Gordon, forward George Fant and guard T.J. Price — in WKU’s 73-61 exhibition win over Xavier (La.) last Saturday.

Gordon led all scorers with 17 while Price finished with 12 points and freshman forward Nigel Snipes with 11. 

Kahlil McDonald added 11 points.

When asked who the team’s main scorer would be this year, Ken McDonald jokingly replied, “Orlando Mendez-Valdez,” the former Topper who now plays professionally in Mexico.

But he’s said all along that in order to win, it will take a balanced scoring effort this season given the production that left last season.

“If everyone can contribute, I think everyone’s going to be happy,” Ken McDonald said. “There’s different ways for guys to contribute — some might be scoring, some might be rebounding, some might be a defensive presence.

“That’s something that will obviously will evolve with time as well and you have to sell those rolls.”

Naturally, with so many newcomers, a few jitters could be expected Friday night in WKU’s first game against St. Joseph’s at 7 p.m. at Diddle Arena.

Gordon and Snipes said they felt them in Saturday’s exhibition, but Friday night could be a different story in their first official game.

Ken McDonald said the young players will have to grow up fast because they’ll be counted on to contribute as much as anyone.

“We’re going to throw these guys in the fire and everybody knows it,” he said. “Everyone knows they’re going to play. I want our team to have a reputation of just a long line of WKU players that are coming at you and contributing.”

After Friday night’s game, WKU will turn back around on Monday for another home game against Tennessee State.

The Toppers will then turn their focus to the Charleston Classic in Charleston, S.C.

After a first round matchup with Tulsa on Thursday, the Toppers could potentially face Louisiana State, Northwestern and Georgia Tech.

They could also potentially play St. Joseph’s or Virginia Commonwealth — both of which are on WKU’s regular season schedule.

“We’re going to go after that tournament with expectations of going in there one game at a time,” Ken McDonald said. “But that’s an opportunity early in the season to win a championship and that’s what we’re going to talk about and go in with the expectations of.”