Hysteria gives fans first look at ‘reset’ basketball program

Head Coach Ken McDonald talks to the WKU men’s basketball team during a timeout last season at Diddle Arena. The Toppers, who went 16-16 in 2010-2011 and haven’t qualified for postseason play since 2008-2009, have called this season a “reset” for the program. 

Cole Claybourn

Last March, Head Coach Ken McDonald sat in front of media, coaches and fans and promised for a changed approach this season — a “reset.”

It came after a struggling season in which many fans openly expressed their discontent with the basketball program.

Friday’s Hilltopper Hysteria, the team’s first official practice, is also McDonald’s first chance to win back some of those fans who jumped ship last season.

“I think it’s part of our job — to get fans back in the fold and understanding that this a different group,” McDonald said Wednesday. “We’re going to go in the right direction. We’re going to do things the right way.  I think fans are going to be excited about how hard this team plays and competes and I think that’s all they ever wanted.”

McDonald said when the Toppers struggled last season it was because they didn’t play hard and didn’t represent the program the right way.

But this year — his first without any holdovers from previous head coach Darrin Horn — McDonald said the attitude is completely different.

He said team chemistry is there, effort is there and although the team is young, the talent is there.

This year’s team will have a much different look than last season’s.

Seven players are freshmen, three are sophomores, three are juniors and just one is a senior.

“Along with the theme of getting things going in a different direction, it’s good from the sense of, ‘Hey, this is what we have, this is a new group, let’s put the past in the past,’” McDonald said. “Let’s just keep moving forward and get this thing rolling the way we want to and the way we need to.”

With seven freshmen on junior college transfer, eight of team’s 14 members will be getting their first taste of the Diddle Arena atmosphere.

That’s something that excites them, McDonald said.

“Guys are ready,” he said. “There’s a level of anticipation because there’s so many new ones. ‘How hard is it going to be? What are we going to do?’ Now it’s time to compete and solidify themselves as basketball players for this program.”

The event itself will have a little bit of a different look this year.

There will be no dunk contest or three-point contest. McDonald said that changes weren’t made to avoid the risk of injury, rather that it takes too long and is an individual event. He said women’s coach Mary Taylor Cowles was on board with the change.

“I think we’re going to go out, give the guys a sense of how hard we’re going to play, give everybody a chance at knowing the faces and the new names. It’s a lot to learn,” McDonald said. “We’ll just kind of make it a nice team event.”

The night officially starts off with the WKU volleyball match at 6 p.m. against Florida International. Hilltopper Hysteria will immediately follow.

McDonald said senior guard Kahlil McDonald suffered a grade two medial collateral sprain and will miss two to three weeks, so he’ll be unable to participate. Sophomore forward Stephon Drane will also be unable to participate after hyper-extending his knee. McDonald said Drane would be out until at least early November.

Freshman forward Vinny Zollo is recovering over a bout with mono and also recently had his appendix removed, but McDonald said Zollo would be at Hilltopper Hysteria Friday night.

McDonald said he’s hoping for a big crowd and wants fans to walk away from Friday’s event with excitement that wasn’t there at the end of last season.

“You do that with how hard you play,” McDonald said. You show some teamwork, you show some toughness – we talk about teamwork, pride and toughness a lot.

“Whenever we step on the court — when we’re off the court — that’s going to be what we talk about and how we represent ourselves. That’s important to me.”