Confidence, depth main concerns for Tops moving forward in Sun Belt

From left, WKU sophomore guard Jamal Crook, junior guard Kahlil McDonald, and senior forward Juan Pattillo walk back to the locker room after losing to FAU, 78-73. The Toppers (5-11) travel to South Alabama on Thursday.

Zach Greenwell

Head Coach Ken McDonald said the Toppers are learning plenty of life lessons from their 5-11 start to the season.

And with its losing streak now at six games, WKU’s biggest lesson may be how to play the hand it’s dealt.

“If you’re made out of anything, losing brings you a little closer together because you really start to lock in on the mistakes that we’re making,” McDonald said Tuesday. “The outside perception and some of those things that go on in a small town — that’s probably good life lessons for all of us, to be honest. That’s the real world.”

Reality has been unforgiving for the Toppers, whose loss to Florida Atlantic last Saturday dropped them to 0-4 in the Sun Belt Conference for the first time in their 29-year league membership.

WKU hasn’t won a game in five weeks, but McDonald said a trial by fire has ultimately benefited the team’s chemistry.

“We’re definitely becoming a tighter unit,” he said. “We’re becoming more cohesive. I think you’re seeing a group on the court that’s starting to resemble a team, and we still have a long way to go, a lot of potential and a lot of conference games left.”

The Toppers have 13 conference games left on the schedule, starting Thursday at South Alabama. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:05 p.m.

McDonald said two of WKU’s biggest enemies right now are internal — namely a lack of confidence and depth.

“Each guy handles things different,” he said. “Maturity is something that you’re constantly trying to develop, and everyone has a different level of maturity and develops at a different rate. As a coaching staff, you just have to figure out what buttons to push, and a lot of it is experimental based.”

Several obstacles have kept McDonald from experimenting on the court as much as he’d like to.

WKU lost two point guards in Ken Brown and Brandon Peters, and its depth chart has shrunk considerably during Sun Belt play.

In four conference games, the Toppers have primarily used a seven-man rotation, and five players have averaged more than 31 minutes per game.

Senior forward Cliff Dixon and sophomore Jamal Crook have played significant minutes off the bench, but no other reserve has averaged more than 2.5 minutes per game.

McDonald said he’s most concerned by the lack of depth at the guard positions, where junior Kahlil McDonald and sophomore Caden Dickerson have shouldered most of the load.

“In the backcourt, we’ve got to get more help,” Ken McDonald said. “I don’t know if that means exactly going bigger, but (freshman walk-on) Mike Gabbard — he’s got to come in and maybe play a couple minutes a half so Kahlil and Caden can get a little rest.

“Those guys are playing hard minutes and managing the game, and they’re under more stress than they’ve ever been under, so that’s an issue that we’re trying to address right now.”

McDonald said WKU will likely play more zone defense because of the shallow depth chart, but he said even that is a liability because Sun Belt opponents have shot 48 percent from behind the arc in four games.

South Alabama (7-9, 1-4 Sun Belt) has been led this season by the guard duo of Martino Brock and Tim Williams, who’ve averaged a combined 28 points per game.

Freshman center Augustine Rubit has also been a force in the post, averaging 12.5 points and 10.7 rebounds.

“We don’t want to be the team that they get it going against,” McDonald said. “I’m sure it’ll be a battle. It always is down there, and this is a great opportunity for us to start our own little run of what we want to get going. We’ve got to contain their guards … and the big fella — we’ve got to keep him off the block.”

McDonald said the Toppers should be at full strength for the trip to Mobile, Ala., except for freshman forward Kene Anyigbo, who’s still fighting a sinus infection.