In His Hands

Kyle Hightower

This is the Potter’s House.

Dennis Felton art the potter; Western basketball art the clay.

A pious reference is applicable here not because basketball is the Western coach’s religion, but because to many, basketball in Kentucky is.

It is many Kentuckians’ sense of pride and their badge of honor.?The thing that keeps them warm in the winter, and the thing they hold dearest in their hardwood-lined hearts.?

Hilltopper Country was never exempt from this crusade.

It wasn’t able to avoid the epiphany after guys named Diddle, Oldham, Smith, Richards, Haskins and many others built a temple not held together by sticks, stones or brick but by each of their respective legacies.?

These are traditions not only of success and integrity, but also of the kind that once elevated Western to a share of the podium that had for a long time worn an unseen sign reading “UK and U of L – ONLY” when it came to basketball.

It is a legacy that has passed through what proved to be a few pairs of butterfingers in recent decades but landed in the hands of an unproven coach four years ago under the watchful and uncertain eyes of the keepers of Western’s basketball inheritance.

Felton, after all, had just become only the 11th coach to head up the Topper program in its 83-year history.

But as he enters his fifth season, Felton has posted back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances and brought buckets of attention to what had become a forgotten program.

And the man they once called “FAILton” is now the charismatic potter. He is effectively shaping and molding the revitalization of a men’s basketball program now under the looking glass, not just of Hilltopper enthusiasts but a nationwide audience as well.

“I think it’s pretty extraordinary what’s going on with Western basketball,” Felton said.? “Two years ago we were nobodies and losing. Now we are considered to be amongst the better programs in the country.”

Last spring, the 39-year-old Felton signed a 7-year contract extension. He secured the services of a core of young recruits who he hopes will sustain the progress he has made over the past few years – and take the Toppers even further.

All this while the largest numbers of his second recruiting class are lost to graduation after this season – including senior center Chris Marcus, who withdrew his name from the NBA draft and opted for a final season at Western.

Marcus, a partial qualifier, gained a fourth season of eligibility by earning his degree over the summer.

But with Marcus still hurt, a prized recruit now departed (freshman center Michael Doe left the team in the preseason), a team still coping after experiencing tragedy this summer (former walk-on Nathan Eisert’s suicide) and lofty expectations looming, this season will test the Potter. It will test whether the Potter can shape his clay into a pattern that resembles the tradition he has worked so hard to rediscover.

Finding his tools

A few weeks ago, Felton sat confined. Boxed up and closed off.

In a trailer no less. It’s actually where he has been for some time now.?

It is his and the basketball office’s temporary Diddle Arena headquarters until a renovated Diddle office section opens.

He sat in his chair, donning a T-shirt and warm-up suit, eating salad and drinking water – a healthy lunch for the coach trying to build a healthy program.

As his hands and utensils picked through the salad, his 2001 gold Sun Belt Championship ring occasionally high-fived the sunlight peering through the window.

“I don’t want our team to lose sight that we’re getting this recognition based on performance,” Felton said.? “If we didn’t win an exorbitant amount of games, nobody would care about Western Kentucky.

“We remind our team not to pay attention to any expectations outside of our locker room, because they’re just not reality-based. We always, always talk about our expectations of each other, but we really only talk about playing basketball. We know that if we do a good job of taking care of those things, then the scoreboard takes care of itself.”

The Toppers, who are in the top 20 of many preseason polls, are raising eyebrows though they have yet to play even a preseason game. And while a lot of the attention comes because of Marcus’ sudden decision to put the NBA on hold, Felton contends, and the evidence supports, that Marcus is no longer the main attraction.

Western returns four starters from a team that went 28-4 and won its second straight Sun Belt regular-season and tournament titles – a team that proved it could win without the big man.

Marcus came back to the Toppers in order to properly rehabilitate his injured left foot, which sidelined him for 17 games last season – of which Western won 15. He had surgery in June, but the rehab process is going slower than expected. He will be out of the lineup indefinitely.

Though they haven’t made it past the first round in either of their recent NCAA Tournament appearances, expectations this year will be higher than they’ve ever been – with or without Marcus.

Felton knows that. But a key to the Toppers’ success may be how well they handle their newfound stardom.

Western will rely heavily on its seniors, led by forward David Boyden, who has started all but two games. Guards Filip Videnov and Mike Wells will play major roles; both will play some point guard to relieve sophomore Patrick Sparks.

“We’ve been successful because of our talent, leadership, and because our ability to play as a team has gotten better,” Felton said. “Many of our talented people haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve.? People are often too hung up on who the leading scorer is and it’s a shame it took Marcus to get hurt to see the other guys.”

Boyden, Videnov, Wells and senior forward Nate Williams came to Western in 1999 as part of Felton’s second recruiting class. The Hilltoppers went 11-18 that season, Marcus’ first at Western.

“That’s not something we sit down and think about,” Boyden, a team captain, said. “We just go one game at a time. If it happens (advancing past the first round of the NCAA tournament), it will be because of something we do on the court. If we just keep getting wins, all that will happen by itself.”

Unfinished sculpture

And so through it all, the Potter is still molding.

Whatever the final product of this season, he knows it will be criticized.? He expects it and accepts it.

“Coaches are being smart these days about not exposing themselves and not losing their jobs,” Felton said.? “It didn’t used to happen this way – coaches being fired as quickly as they are today.?If people were criticizing coaches back then the way they do today, we would have never even heard of a (Duke) Coach (Mike) Krzyzewski, who is now probably going to be one of the greatest coaches ever.”

But just as fans develop a sweet tooth with nuggets of success, so also do coaches revel in accomplishments.?Felton isn’t any different.

He is by no means done with his vision for Western basketball, but this season will go a long way in shaping his legacy. This year will greatly affect the structure of the Potter’s House and the Toppers’ future.