For the past three seasons Western basketball has been the butter of the Sun Belt Conference.
Fans and players are spoiled, accustomed to dominance in their own small niche of collegiate basketball.
A conference championship and a trip to the Big Dance have been marks of a good season, almost taken for granted. All the while reaching for the elusive NCAA tournament win that would have made it a great season.
But Western basketball got a jolt when it’s two prized possessions headed to the Southeastern Conference – coach Dennis Felton to Georgia and guard Patrick Sparks to Kentucky.
Their departure left broken hearts to be mended and gaping holes to fill.
While holes have been filled and hearts mended, it hasn’t always been pretty, it certainly took some time and continues to be a work in progress.
“The challenge wasn’t basketball,” first-year coach Darrin Horn said. “The challenge was the mental approach and getting the guys to not only believe in what they were doing but more importantly to believe in themselves – with four new starters and guys in elevated roles.”
With an untested coach at the helm, an overweight center named “Big Jelly”, and an undersized junior-college transfer at point guard mixed expectations have been met with mixed results.
The Toppers started the season 0-5, including losses to Louisville and Mississippi State, who both cracked the top-five during the course of the season, along with losses to Auburn, Virginia Commonwealth and Murray State. (It should be noted that in Felton’s rookie season he also lost his first five games.)
“The biggest challenge was getting these guys to believe in each other and what they could do as a team,” Horn said. “That and really bad scheduling made the beginning of the year difficult.”
But while frustration set in outside the lines the kinks were being worked out inside of them.
Western would get its first win against Austin Peay, a convincing 75-59 win and precursor to winning five of its next six contests.
Senior center Nigel Dixon had trimmed down to a lean 320 pounds, Mike Wells was a ray of consistency while leading the team in scoring and junior point guard Antonio Haynes won the affection of all with his leadership and infectious energy.
“It was just a matter of working out the kinks,” Dixon said. “It was a new coaching staff, new players and still trying to get a feel for everything.”
But a season on the rebound was interrupted by a surprisingly balanced Sun Belt as the Toppers lost their first two conference games, both on the road, before winning at home against Arkansas-Little Rock and Arkansas State in mid-January.
“We’re in a league where everybody’s gunning for us,” Horn said. “We got everybody’s best shot every game.”
Home was sweet and the road rocky for most of the season as the Toppers flirted with a winning record but remained inconsistent in league play. Their 29-game conference home winning streak was snapped by Louisiana-Lafayette 110-102 in one of the highest scoring games in school history.
Despite the loss, Western got a glimpse of the future as sophomore guard Anthony Winchester scored 40 points in a game that magnified Western’s defensive shortcomings while showcasing their offense capabilities.
The Toppers responded with five straight wins, climbing above .500 and culminating with a 80-78 road win against North Texas. At 13-10 and 7-4 in the Sun Belt an 0-5 start seemed like a distant memory and a shot at winning the East Division likely.
“It was a real positive to watch these guys and see them improve as individuals and as a team,” Horn said. “It says a lot that these guys started 0-5 and where they are now.”
As the season concluded Western struggled on the road losing two of its last three league games. They finished 15-12 and 8-6 while slipping to a No. 4 seed in the conference tournament.
With a bar set high by three years of league dominance the success of Western’s turbulent season will most likely be judged by the outcome of the Sun Belt Tournament.
Reach Jay Lively at [email protected]