SUN BELT OUTLOOK: Conference getting stronger as Lady Toppers try to follow suit

Keith Farner

The mystique is still here.

Despite having one of the program’s most disappointing seasons a year ago, Western has not lost the respect of its conference foes.

After going 9-5 in conference play last season, the Lady Toppers are hoping a fresh start gives them an added boost.

Picked to finish second in the East Division behind Florida International by league coaches for the second year in a row, Lady Topper basketball hasn’t lost the respect – even after last year.

“With Mary Taylor Cowles in the head coaching seat you can’t count Western Kentucky out of anything,” Denver Coach Pam Tanner said. “She’s the face and the name of Western Kentucky women’s basketball, she’s not going to let it drop.”

Western will hope to benefit from a brutal non-conference schedule. The Lady Tops host Louisville and former conference rival Louisiana Tech before traveling to Kentucky and Mississippi.

“To make us better offensively and defensively, to make us stronger, we have to play the better teams that are not in our conference,” said junior guard Leslie Logsdon who returns as Western’s top scorer at 12.2 points per game.

Logsdon was one of three Lady Tops named to the preseason all-conference team along with seniors Kristina Covington and Shala Reese.

“It really doesn’t matter in the preseason,” Reese said. “It’s how you end up. If I was picked preseason All-American and then I don’t end up that way, I didn’t have a good season.”

Conference play opens Jan. 4 against Middle Tennessee and Logsdon said the conference is one of the deepest in the country.

Cupcakes are nowhere to be found.

“Anybody can come in any given night, on a good night and win,” Logsdon said. “If we were first and FIU was last and they came in and we weren’t ready to play, any team can beat anybody in our conference.”

The Sun Belt has gone from one of the elite conferences in the early 90s to the bottom of the pack. Now it is on its way back up.

“We’re making strides every year,” Cowles said. “I think the important key is we are improving as a conference. So many people thought we were going to take such a hard hit when Louisiana Tech exited, especially on the women’s side. We’ve continued to progress and still hold on strong.”

Tanner said the conference is both underrated and under-respected. Even after it had three teams make it to post-season tournaments last season.

“We’re never included in that group of elite conferences,” Tanner said. “Yet one or two of our teams always upset somebody and that’s not just Louisiana Tech.”

Leading the Golden Panthers this season will be senior Comisha Cotton who is the Preseason Player of the Year. Comisha helped sweep Western last year while averaging 11 points and 11 rebounds per game.

On the other side of the conference, Denver was picked to win the West despite losing two all-conference guards. A two-time Sun Belt Coach of the Year, Tanner returns three starters in hopes of her fourth straight winning season.

After losing Louisiana Tech two years ago, some say the conference has been on the decline. But with three teams advancing to post-season tournaments, it could be on the rise.

“It was one of the strongest conferences, but over the years its kind of been going down,” Reese said. “Right now the competition is getting stiffer and teams are getting better so I think the Sun Belt is moving up into the elite conferences.”

Last season against North Texas in the conference tournament, the Lady Tops couldn’t establish a consistent offense and fell 84-52. After that, Western lost in the WNIT to Illinois.

Starting on Jan. 4, they want to change that perception.

“We don’t want that to be the lasting impression people have of Western,” Reese said.

The next two seasons the conference tournament will be played in the newly renovated Diddle Arena. That change could symbolize everything that’s new about this program.

“I think that’s big time,” Covington said. “I think it’s going to bring a lot of fans back to the program.”

Cowles – who has her own memories when she was a player – had trouble describing the home-court atmosphere and the advantages it provides against opponents.

“I don’t know if I could put it in words,” Cowles said. “There’s just something special about walking into Diddle Arena with all the red towels waving and all the fans yelling, knowing that those fans are behind you.

There are other schools that we’ve walked into that type of atmosphere, Tennessee and Duke, in the NCAA Tournament. It really does make a difference. It does play a part psychologically more than anything.”