McDonald: WKU has to ‘raise the bar’ in future seasons

WKU Head Coach Ken McDonald watches as WKU plays against North Texas. WKU lost the game, 81-62, but McDonald said after the game that he was proud of the way the Toppers turned around their 2010-11 season.

Jonathan Lintner

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Athletics Director Ross Bjork wasn’t ready to talk about the end of WKU’s basketball season on Monday night, but Head Coach Ken McDonald insisted it could have been much worse.

The Toppers lost junior guard Ken Brown to an academic violation, freshman guard Brandon Peters to ineligibility, and senior forward Cliff Dixon to a violation of team rules. They were 5-11 after opening Sun Belt Conference play 0-4, and they played in front of a dwindling crowd that doubted the effort as well as the coach.

An 81-62 loss to North Texas on Monday ended the Toppers’ season in the Sun Belt tournament semifinals.

But WKU battled back from a rough start to the year and finished 16-16. For that, McDonald said he’s proud.

“Think about how far this team has come from December, when things were just not looking good,” he said. “It was bleak. We were really in a hole, partly because of me over-scheduling and doing some things like not coaching these guys up to my ability.

“We were in such a bad mental state at that point with everything because we were 5-11, and for this team to battle back, and regroup, and block it all out and win whatever amount of games to end the season and be in every game says a lot about them.”

Todd Stewart, senior associate athletic director, told reporters after the game that Bjork was focusing on the WKU women’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship game, which tips at 1 p.m. CT Tuesday.

Stewart said Bjork will meet with McDonald as soon as this week for an “in-depth review,” as Bjork does with every coach after the season.

“Any comments that (Ross) would make about the season would be most appropriate to take place after that review,” Stewart said.

McDonald said after Monday’s loss to North Texas that he’s improved as a head coach in his three seasons. McDonald is 62-38 overall after three seasons, though the Toppers’ 16-16 record was the worst at WKU since former coach Darrin Horn went 15-12 in the 2003-2004 season, Horn’s first.

“I think the coaching staff really buckled down and tried to do what we can do,” McDonald said. “That’s pretty much what our attitude was — let’s work every day on getting this better, and let’s turn this thing around. And the players did it, and it says a lot about them. I’m proud about that.”

The Toppers are losing most of their scoring heading into next season with exhausted eligibility from senior forwards Steffphon Pettigrew, Sergio Kerusch and Juan Pattillo.

The trio combined to average more than 40 points and 20 rebounds a game. They also scored 161 of the Toppers’ 209 points during the three tournament games.

Pettigrew said that was part of “leaving it all on the floor.”

“To go out this way hurt us, but we just have to move on,” Pettigrew said. “Hopefully for WKU in the future, they can get back in this position and maybe win it all.”

McDonald is set to bring in five three-star recruits, led by Derrick Gordon, a St. Patrick High School (N.J.) guard. Gordon checks in at No. 135 in the latest Rivals 150 rankings.

WKU also returns regular starters in Jamal Crook and Caden Dickerson. McDonald said he saw growth this season among not only those two, but also junior-to-be Teeng Akol and senior-to-be Kahlil McDonald.

“We’ve got young talent coming in. I think there are promising guys coming in,” McDonald said. “But there’s a lot of work to do. We’ve got to win those fans back. I think we definitely won some fans back because we played with a whole lot more heart since December, a whole lot more teamwork and a whole lot more toughness.

“But there’s still work to do, and I think it’s going to be everybody’s job to raise the bar.”