Tops to follow blowout wins with ‘first test’ in Puerto Rico

After a 28-point win over St. Joseph’s and a 22-point win over Alabama A&M, WKU heads to Puerto Rico for what senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew said will be the Toppers’ biggest test yet. The field includes eighth-ranked North Carolina and West Virginia, which was a Final Four team last season.

Zach Greenwell

Head Coach Ken McDonald said the Puerto Rico Tip-Off has changed a lot since his last visit to the tournament as an assistant at Clemson more than 10 years ago.

For one, the event was then called the San Juan Shootout. McDonald also said the games were played in a high school gym.

But the tournament WKU is currently a part of in San Juan, Puerto Rico, has come a long way. It’s moved into an 18,500-seat coliseum — the biggest in Puerto Rico — and boasts some stiff competition for the Toppers.

Among the eight teams involved are West Virginia, North Carolina, Vanderbilt and Minnesota, which WKU lost to Thursday night in the first round.

“Each game is an opportunity,” McDonald said. “Regardless of who you’re playing in this tournament, you’re playing a national program, and that’s a great position to be in.”

The Toppers started last season in the NIT Season Tip-Off, where they squeaked by Wisconsin-Milwaukee and then lost to LSU. They also went 1-1 in consolation play, losing at home to Indiana State.

So with that letdown in mind, senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew said the Toppers have something to prove this weekend.

“I think all of the guys are looking forward to it,” Pettigrew said. “It’s our first test. We’ve just got to take each and every day and prepare for them, focus in mentally and be ready to play.”

North Carolina is the only team in the tournament ranked in either the AP Top 25 or ESPN/USA Today Coaches Polls, coming in at No. 8 in both.

But three of the participating teams went to the NCAA tournament last year, including West Virginia’s run to the Final Four.

“It’s a big tournament, not only for us, but for the other teams that’s in there,” senior forward Juan Pattillo said. “We could open a lot of eyes in the tournament, and we’re just looking forward to going down there and making strides.”

WKU opened its season with two dominant victories, beating St. Joseph’s and Alabama A&M by an average of 25 points.

McDonald said he’s still seen plenty of causes for concern. The Toppers won the rebounding battle in their first two contests, but only by a slim margin of four each time.

They also turned the ball over 33 times combined in the two wins, which McDonald said will ruin the Puerto Rico trip if repeated.

“You have to understand that they’re going to be one-, two-, three-possession games,” he said. “We’re going to have to execute each possession we have. We can’t afford to throw the ball away 16 or 18 times. We can’t beat ourselves.”

McDonald said winning the tournament is always the goal, but he’s learned over the years that you have make each game a learning lesson in such a prestigious event.

“It’s going to tell us a lot about ourselves,” he said. “I think no matter what happens, you’ve got an opportunity to improve and learn from what you’ve done. You go down there … and you’re in a close game but don’t pull it off — there’s a lot of points we can point to and say, ‘We could have had this game.’”