Life on the road was difficult for WKU last season.
The Toppers went just 5-8 away from Diddle Arena, including a stretch in which they dropped five straight Sun Belt road games.
But that was the past, and it’s something Head Coach Ken McDonald said he’d prefer to leave behind when WKU travels to St. Joseph’s tonight for its season opener at 6:30 p.m.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to put a lot of things behind us and look into the future,” McDonald said. “Regardless of how the game goes, we’ve got a lot of potential, and potential’s nothing unless you’re reaching it.”
WKU won its two exhibition games this season by an average of 19 points, but senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew said the team can’t let that deceive it.
There were still issues in both games, most notably that the Toppers were out-rebounded by six in their final tune-up against Xavier (La.).
“You can’t just use your athletic ability to get rebounds,” Pettigrew said. “Everybody’s just as athletic as you. On film, it showed us not even blocking out, so hopefully people pay attention to the details.”
St. Joe’s finished last season 11-20, its worst record in coach Phil Martelli’s 15 years at the helm.
The Hawks also lost their top two scorers from last season, but McDonald said that’s no reason to think Martelli won’t have them ready with six newcomers.
“Well, hopefully this doesn’t come down to a coaching contest,” McDonald said, laughing. “We know how that might go. He’s a heck of a coach, good motivator and good X’s and O’s guy. He’s trying to develop these young guys at a faster rate than they’re supposed to because he’s going to have to rely on some new ones.”
WKU is in basically the same boat, trying to infuse seven new players into the rotation.
Freshman guard Brandon Peters said the team’s veterans have started preparing them for what will likely be a hostile crowd in Philadelphia, which is an atmosphere most of the newcomers haven’t experienced.
“They’ve told me to be prepared,” Peters said. “It’s not going to be easy. We’re at their house, so we just have to be ready and not let anything get in our way.”
The Toppers will benefit from the return of senior forward Sergio Kerusch, who missed the Xavier game with a sore foot. McDonald said Kerusch has fully practiced this week with no issues.
McDonald said “being ready” for a game like St. Joe’s is a relative term, and that he can’t be sure if the Toppers are fully prepared until they hit the court tonight.
But since seven players on the team weren’t around for those eight losses away from home last season, he said there’s no reason why WKU can’t be a group of road warriors this year.
“It’s a great opportunity. St. Joe’s is looking at it the same way,” he said. “I don’t think they had a particularly good season by their standards, and I know they’re looking to make a statement themselves. But I think there’s no better opportunity than to do it on the road. It proves a lot to yourself.”