Men’s Notes: WKU downplays high expectations at basketball media day

Men's Notes: WKU downplays high expectations at basketball media day

Zach Greenwell

Head Coach Ken McDonald urged his WKU basketball team to embrace high expectations last season.

The same preseason praise has arrived this year, but this time, McDonald said he’d prefer to leave it by the wayside.

“I haven’t done a good enough job in years past handling that,” McDonald said Tuesday at WKU’s basketball media day. “All the preseason stuff is obviously coaches or media trying to put some type of athlete or team there that hasn’t gotten there yet.”

WKU was selected Tuesday by Sun Belt coaches as the favorite to win the league’s East Division. Senior forward Sergio Kerusch was also picked as the Preseason Player of the Year.

McDonald joked that in his first two seasons, the Toppers have failed to meet high expectations and outdone low expectations.

Last season, WKU was projected as the East Division winner, and A.J. Slaughter was the Preseason Player of the Year. Neither of those predictions panned out.

“I think it’s a little bit of a conspiracy by the coaches to put the pressure on WKU,” McDonald said sarcastically. “We have seven new kids and it’s time to just stay focused. It’s much more about improving and where this team is going to go.”

Kerusch averaged 14.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per game last season, but he also missed 14 games with a broken foot. He said he would have gotten a “big head” in previous years if he received a preseason award, but a much humbler Kerusch commented Wednesday.

“I was excited, but honestly, I was shocked,” he said. “There’s so many people that I think are more deserving of this award than I am. I was out 14 games last year, and I would give my pick to (senior forward Steffphon) Pettigrew. He led the team, and I sat there and watched.”

McDonald said he has no idea at this point if WKU is the best team in the Sun Belt’s East Division.

But he said the biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s is maturity. The Toppers now understand that preseason predictions don’t mean anything if you don’t back them up, he said.

“We’ve got our own challenges,” McDonald said. “We’re not the biggest team, we have a new point guard in the fold – there’s a lot of “if’s” with this team that we have to address.”

Early speed bumps

WKU has a grueling nonconference schedule this season, including games against Louisville, South Carolina, Memphis, and Vanderbilt.

McDonald said he’s been doing everything he can to prepare the Toppers for the long road ahead, but he’s reverting back to the “small victories” approach he took in his first season.

“We very well could be a team that loses some of these early games,” McDonald said. “We can’t lose confidence in the sight of the goal, which has to be improvement. If we’re improving each day, we’re going to knock off our fair share of teams.”

Keeping the seven newcomers’ confidence high through a string of tough games will be a big challenge, McDonald said.

But Pettigrew said he and the rest of the veterans are doing their part to make sure the new guys don’t get beat down by the college grind.

“We try to talk to the young guys and keep leading them along the way,” Pettigrew said. “We’ve got a long season ahead of us, and we’re going to have to have all of us to carry this journey on.”

Speaking up

Although there’s a host of characters on WKU’s team, McDonald said there’s surprisingly not as much vocal leadership.

McDonald said players like Pettigrew and Kerusch tend to lead by example, although they’re trying to be louder on the court. He said others like senior forward Juan Pattillo and sophomore guards Jamal Crook and Caden Dickerson have also taken the initiative.

“You see a lot of it,” McDonald said. “It’s not one voice like you hear about, like Peyton Manning. I think it’s very rare to have this super-vocal leader. That’s not as realistic as you think. You hear the stories, and we have some leadership, but to have the one guy in the locker room that everyone listens to and always says the right thing – that’s tough.

“We don’t have that yet, but we have a lot of voices that aren’t quite as loud.”