Tops preparing to take court with defensive mindset

Zach Greenwell

Head Coach Ken McDonald doesn’t have a lot of prerequisites for playing time at this point in the preseason, but he said one stands out above the rest.

“I’ve told the guys, ‘You show me you’re not willing to play defense at a high level, you’re not going to get on the court,’” McDonald said. “We’re talking in those terms to the guys, and so far, they’re hearing it.”

McDonald gets his first chance to test the Toppers’ defense at 3 p.m. Sunday, when WKU hosts Campbellsville in an exhibition matchup.

“I want to set a tone defensively,” he said. “I want us to really work on sharing the ball and show some great Hilltopper toughness. When fans walk away, I want them to see a sense of team.”

The game against Campbellsville will also be the first chance for seven newcomers to take the court for WKU.

McDonald said the new players are still adjusting to the college game but that turning up the defensive intensity is the easiest way to mask other deficiencies.

“We talk a lot about taking the pressure off your offense with a great defense,” he said. “You give yourself a chance to make up for some mishaps from these rookies.”

WKU finished 21-13 last season and failed to make the NCAA tournament after two consecutive appearances.

Senior forward Sergio Kerusch called last year a “failure,” saying that the Toppers are going to try to improve by simplifying things this season.

“(Coach McDonald) went back to the basics,” Kerusch said. “After last year, he broke everything down, and we’re starting over from scratch.”

McDonald said WKU can afford to play a more up-tempo style because it has more athleticism and speed. The team has the luxury of making mistakes and still recovering from them with physical talent, he said.

“We have a lot of potential in that area,” McDonald said. “That gives you a chance to be in the game night in and night out. Depth should play a part in this year’s team in a very positive way.”

Although they return five players who started at least one game last season, the Toppers don’t have a starting five set for Campbellsville yet, McDonald said.

He said the competition between teammates in practice has been as fierce as ever this offseason, but he doesn’t want that intensity to pull the team apart rather than build chemistry.

“We’re going to talk this week about not getting caught up in that,” McDonald said. “We can play a lot of guys … and I want the guys to be hungry. I don’t want them thinking they’re set at any time because I don’t think that makes for a good attitude.”

McDonald isn’t likely to overlook Campbellsville. During his first season in 2008, WKU was taken to the wire, 70-65, by Bellarmine in an exhibition.

But senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew said he’s not too worried about a slow start to the season. As long as the Toppers stick to the defensive game plan, he said everything else should fall into place.

“As soon as the ball tips up, be in store for a WKU basketball team. Be ready for it,” Pettigrew said. “Hopefully we’ll show the defense that everybody’s been looking for and the fast-paced game we can play with our athletic ability.”