Point guard battle highlights uncertainty in WKU backcourt


Sophomore guard Jamal Crook drives down the court during Sunday’s exhibition game against Campbellsville at Diddle Arena. The Toppers won 80-57.

Zach Greenwell

They say they still feel young, but sophomore guards Jamal Crook and Caden Dickerson have become the “old guys” in the WKU backcourt.

The Toppers brought in four new guards to help replace the void left by the departed A.J. Slaughter and Anthony Sally, which leaves Crook and Dickerson as the only returners with experience.

“We’ve just got to take what we did freshman year and tell guys what we went through,” Crook said. “We have to help them out and let them know what to expect.”

WKU’s strength in the front court this season goes against the grain of recent years.

For the past few seasons, the Toppers have had Slaughter, Orlando Mendez-Valdez or Courtney Lee to shoulder the load.

Head Coach Ken McDonald said neither Crook nor  point guard Ken Brown — a junior-college transfer — are expected to be one of those WKU greats. But McDonald said that doesn’t mean they can’t try.

“They’re both very quick,” McDonald said. “Jamal knows the system a little more, and you can notice that watching him practice. Ken Brown is more of a talent with a lot of speed and doesn’t quite know how to run a team yet.”

Crook moved into a starting role midway through last season and eventually started 18 games.

He averaged 2.2 points and 1.6 assists per game, both numbers he said he hopes to raise this year.

But more importantly, Crook said he wants to firmly “take control” of the team.

“I want to make good decisions, be a floor general at all times and have that pressure,” he said.

McDonald said Brown, a junior, is further behind the other new guards at this point.

One of those newcomers, freshman guard Brandon Peters, started WKU’s first exhibition of the year. The other two, junior Kahlil McDonald and freshman walk-on Mike Gabbard, played significant minutes.

“They work hard, but they need to know what it’s like to play at this level against the high-caliber teams that we’re going to play this year,” Dickerson said. “The new guys from JUCO — they’ve got experience, but they just need to know our system and what it takes to play at this level.”

Crook said he’s benefited from Brown’s speed, learning to contest the shots of a quicker guard.

Senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew said he’s seen that competition paying dividends for both guards along the way.

“It’s two good players, but Jamal needs to work on running his team,” Pettigrew said. “He’s had one year under his belt, so he’s going to be a little bit more comfortable. With Ken, he’s a fast player, so he needs to slow down a little bit and control the team.”

Dickerson averaged 5.9 points last season and started 19 games. He shot 42.7 percent from 3-point range, a consistency that McDonald said he can appreciate.

“He’s a Ken McDonald-type player — just say it,” McDonald said, grinning. “Just go ahead and say it. He stands out in games, to be honest, and he stands out in practice. He’s going to continue to do the things that you appreciate as a coach.”

In McDonald’s first year as coach at WKU, Mendez-Valdez and Slaughter averaged a combined 30 points per game. Crook and Dickerson averaged just eight points combined last year.

But even though they’re the “veterans,” Crook said he and Dickerson won’t be on the court by themselves.

He said that makes the newcomers’ progression even more important.

“They can actually help me and Caden out and the other guards that are playing the same position with different things that they do,” Crook said. “They do different things that we can’t do, so we can just put it together as one.”