Notes: Toppers talk Sun Belt tourney, pressure, Pat Forde

WKU travels to Hot Springs, Ark., this weekend for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. The Toppers first play Louisiana-Monroe at 6:45 p.m. Saturday.

Zach Greenwell

Last Saturday’s 57-39 loss to Middle Tennessee wasn’t the type of showing WKU wanted to carry into the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

But Head Coach Ken McDonald said the Toppers (14-15, 8-8 Sun Belt) have one more opportunity to get back on the right track before Saturday’s first-round game in Hot Springs, Ark.

“I know tournament play, and I know the mental state is a big part of it,” McDonald said. “We can’t get too down about the last time out, but we can learn from it. That’s the big thing. The sense of urgency at this point of the year is just really important. You can’t rebound from it.

“Against Middle, you have a bad game, you can rebound from it in the tournament. At this point in the year, you can’t rebound from it.”

The time and location of WKU’s first game against Louisiana-Monroe was changed Wednesday, as the Toppers will now play at 6:45 p.m. on the Convention Center Court — not 6:30 p.m. in Summit Arena.

Senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew said Wednesday that the team has had two grueling days of practice since the MTSU loss.

“We’ve been hitting it hard in practice these past two days, and (McDonald) wants to come out very aggressive in this next game,” Pettigrew said. “You lose, and you go home, so we have to give it everything we have in the game Saturday.”

The Toppers finished the regular season as the No. 3 seed in the Sun Belt East division, meaning they’ll have to play four games in four days to reach Tuesday’s championship game.

McDonald said he doesn’t buy into talk about whether or not WKU can win four straight games. With the way this season has gone, he said he’d much rather focus on climbing one rung on the ladder at a time.

“We’ve tried to key in on two things — play hard and play smart — and we’ll be in every ballgame,” he said. “We’ve got to take care of this week of preparation and cutting out some of the mental mistakes that have gotten us beat.”

Warhawks await

Louisiana-Monroe, the six-seed in the West division, looks like an easy matchup for WKU on paper.

The Warhawks are 7-23 overall and 2-14 in the Sun Belt, and the Toppers’ beat ULM at home this season, 81-61.

But McDonald said he doesn’t care about any of those numbers in the slightest.

“We’ll throw that 20-point win out the window,” he said. “Even though it’s a game that we played well in, we’re going to have to play better to win this one because I’m sure Monroe’s going to come in playing better.”

McDonald said he sees “eight-plus” teams that could contend for the conference championship this season.

Pettigrew said he agrees, pointing to the fact that the Toppers have both beaten and lost to a wide variety of teams in the league.

“It’s thrown up in the air,” he said. “You don’t know who’s going to win it. We’ve beaten the top team — Florida Atlantic — and if we play like we did against Florida Atlantic, we can win this easily.

“But it goes back to playing like that WKU team that everyone knows we can play like.”

ULM is led by guard Fred Brown, who averages 13.9 points.

The Warhawk’s two league wins came over South Alabama and preseason favorite North Texas, so McDonald said he’s not ready to pencil his group into the quarterfinals just yet.

If WKU does advance, it’ll play Louisiana-Lafayette at 6:30 p.m. Sunday in Summit Arena.

“Our group is tough to read sometimes,” McDonald said. “They have been resilient in terms of how they come back and work, but then you’ll have a setback here and there. You can’t have that come tournament play.”

Feeling the heat

For the first time since the loss to Denver at home on Jan. 6, McDonald was asked on Wednesday if he’s feeling any pressure on his job.

As he did then, McDonald said he can’t afford to concern himself with outside sentiments.

“Like I said before, I can’t control things that are not in my hands,” McDonald said. “I feel pressure all the time to try to put the best product out on the floor.”

Despite losing to the Blue Raiders for the fourth straight time last weekend, WKU has gone 9-4 since falling to 5-11 earlier in the season. McDonald said that shows progress in one of the main responsibilities of his job, which is to move the team in the right direction for the tournament.

“I’m confident that we finished the year on a positive note, where we were playing harder and with a lot more teamwork more consistently,” he said. “Did we do it every night out? No. But I’m happy that we’re finishing pretty strong, so that gives you a chance.”

Pettigrew said there’s also pressure on the seniors to leave on a high note, and they’ve responded by lending themselves to the inexperienced players even more.

“It’s very tough, knowing that if you lose, you’re done,” Pettigrew said. “For the seniors, we’ve got to look on to our future. So they’ve got to look to the older guys that have been in this situation, and hopefully we can carry the team.”

Quote of the Day

McDonald was asked Wednesday about the parity in the Sun Belt this season, including columnist Pat Forde saying it could be “the most wide-open tournament of them all this Championship Week.”

“When Western Kentucky is down, the whole league is down — and the erratic Hilltoppers are definitely down,” Forde wrote Tuesday.

It was Forde that suggested a couple weeks back that WKU Athletics Director Ross Bjork’s presence in a postgame press conference at Louisville — coupled with Cardinals coach Rick Pitino’s glowing comments about assistant Steve Masiello — could mean that Bjork was eyeing Masiello as WKU’s next coach.

But on Wednesday, McDonald responded to the original mention of Forde with a tongue-in-cheek answer.

“OK. Pat Forde is a writer?” McDonald said. “He’s the authority on the Sun Belt tournament? Has he ever been to a Sun Belt game? OK. What was your question?”