COLUMN: Still too early to count WKU out this season

The Toppers listen to coach McDonald during a timeout late in their game against the Louisville on Wednesday night. WKU lost 114-82.

Jonathan Lintner

It can’t be said enough times: WKU’s season doesn’t start until January or February or really March 5, when the Sun Belt Conference tournament kicks off.

So if you were hoping to gauge postseason hopes off a 114-82 loss to Louisville on Wednesday night, keep waiting.

The Toppers may have disappointed in front of an announced crowd of 7,326 (Diddle Arena’s listed capacity), and they may have shot a lower percentage, notched fewer rebounds, blocks and assists than the Cardinals. Really, it was domination in every facet by the visitors.

But get this: Wednesday doesn’t matter.

The Sun Belt is the 27th-rated conference by Sagarin Ratings. As with last season, the league champion should be the only NCAA tournament team, and that squad will be subjected to poor seeding.

Wednesday night was more about what UofL accomplished than what WKU didn’t — a performance coach Rick Pitino “couldn’t find fault with.” UofL guard Peyton Siva scored a career-high 29 points, and the Cardinals shot a combined 16 of 30 from 3-point range while coasting to a win.

Try beating any team in the country posting those totals. It’s not an opportunity that a team seeking a Sun Belt title needs to worry about missing.

“It’s really not Western playing poorly. It’s just us being on fire,” Pitino said. “It was one of those nights where everything goes right for your team.”

WKU teams under Head Coach Ken McDonald usually rise to the occasion against big-name opponents. There were Georgia, UofL, Illinois and Gonzaga in year one and Vanderbilt and Mississippi State in year two.

But there wasn’t much WKU could do on Wednesday with UofL on such an offensive tear.

The Toppers kept the score close and a raucous crowd into the game for about 15 minutes. Then the floodgates opened for the Cardinals, who ended the final five minutes of the first half on a 21-6 run and opened the second half by scoring 20 points over five minutes.

“That confidence they got from the first half I thought just rolled into the second half, and now they’re coming into the second half just thinking they can do whatever they want,” McDonald said.

Wednesday’s disappointment comes back to a point this season — possibly after the Toppers dominated a pair of exhibitions and then demolished a respectable St. Joseph’s team on the road — when expectations for this WKU team got out of hand. A non-conference slate that included Minnesota, Vanderbilt and Memphis looked like a potential murderer’s row to begin with, and that shouldn’t have changed despite a hot start.

Fans knew it could be bad. They just hoped it might not be 5-7 bad, where the Toppers sit after the UofL loss.

But Wednesday was a good opportunity for McDonald to bring the 2010-2011 season to a reset, which he said was accomplished by literally wiping the dry-erase board clean in the WKU locker room after the game.

Why? The Toppers begin conference play on New Years Day against Arkansas State after a brief Christmas break.

“We have a new slate right now with conference starting,” McDonald said. “The reasons we were bad in the non-league and not reaching our potential in the non-league — we need to correct those mistakes to move forward and have higher expectations for the conference schedule.”

Now’s the time to start building something for McDonald and company, when eventually they hope to peak in the league tournament.

The next week will be critical in establishing the same things that led UofL to a blowout win on Wednesday, namely a sense of team. A true unit that plays together. Or at least one that looks like it’s played together before.

“I think they want to do it,” McDonald said. “It’s just a matter of believing in each other and working together with each other to get something done.”

You can’t expect after bringing seven newcomers (now six after Ken Brown’s dismissal) that WKU could go out and beat a top-25 team. Senior forward Sergio Kerusch, who led the Toppers with 21 points against UofL, said you can only hope a team doesn’t give up.

On Wednesday, Kerusch said WKU did anything but that.

“We played down to the last minute,” Kerusch said. “In a situation like that, of course the score matters. But just the fact that we still played like we had a chance to win is important to us.”

It’s much too early for the Toppers to give up.

Although WKU is 5-7, this season hasn’t really started yet.