WKU evaluating basketball programs after disappointing month

WKU Head Coach Ken McDonald talks to members of the press after losing to Florida Atlantic on Jan. 15. The Toppers are now 7-11 and 2-4 in the Sun Belt Conference.

Zach Greenwell

The past week breathed some new life into WKU’s struggling basketball programs.

But all involved say they’re not out of the woods yet.

Both the men’s and women’s teams bring two-game win streaks into the new spring semester, helping heal what was an unkind winter break.

From Dec. 18 to Jan. 12, basketball went a combined 3-11. That’s a record that caught the attention of the administration, including President Gary Ransdell.

“I don’t think any of us really saw this coming,” Ransdell said. “We’ve been embarrassed by some really good teams that we should have at least played tough if not beaten, and we’ve also lost to some teams that have very poor RPI rank, and those things should not happen in our basketball program.”

Not only were several of WKU’s recent struggles not expected to happen, but many have never happened before.

At one point during the break, the Lady Toppers — now 8-11 — were carrying their worst start to the season in 30 years.

The men lost six straight games for the first time in over a decade and began Sun Belt play at 0-4 for the first time ever.

“There’s been a myriad of factors, so we have to evaluate,” Athletics Director Ross Bjork said. “We know we’re not living up to the standards in recent history or the long-term history, so we have to do the right thing and get better.”

With the lack of results has come mounting pressure from fans for personnel changes.

The “hot seat” for coaches Ken McDonald and Mary Taylor Cowles may have hit a fever pitch last week, when Bjork said in several interviews that WKU will not make any rash decisions.

Instead, Ransdell and Bjork said that they will continue to periodically evaluate both programs, and any decisions will ultimately go to Bjork.

“Neither Ross or I are giving up on this program, this coaching staff and certainly not these players,” Ransdell said. “So we’re taking it a week at a time and studying it. Where we are now is not acceptable. It will be corrected.”

Attendance in Diddle Arena has reflected the fan base’s temperament this season.

The Toppers drew 7,326 fans for a game against then-No. 25 Louisville on Dec. 22 but have since had two games with fewer than 3,000 attendees.

The women are averaging fewer than 1,000 fans per game after drawing more than 1,000 for every game last year. The average number of attendees last season was more than 1,400.

But Saturday, which saw WKU sweep Troy in a home doubleheader, brought cause for optimism. The Lady Toppers drew a season-high attendance of 1,236, and the men’s crowd increased to 3,802.

Both are below traditional standards for WKU, but Bjork said fans treat purchasing a ticket like a financial investment.

“People want a solid return on investment,” he said. “That means wins on the court. Right now, we’re not delivering on that.”

Both programs’ seasons are hardly lost with more than a month to go before the Sun Belt tournament.

The Lady Toppers improved to 5-2 in conference Saturday, and McDonald said the men have to put themselves in a position to compete every night.

McDonald said he knows the last week doesn’t make up for the last month.

But it’s a start.

“We’ve got to stay hungry,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. We’re well under .500 right now. We’ve got to continue.”

Reporter Jonathan Lintner contributed to this story.