Ken McDonald has a good pedigree for coaching basketball. A two year letterwinner at Providence, the 38 year old McDonald worked under Rich Barnes first at Clemson and later at Texas, and he was an assistant under Dennis Felton at Western Kentucky. In fact, his last game as an assistant with WKU was against Illinois and Bill Self in the NCAA Tournament.
"It is a little ironic, "McDonald remembers. "What's kind of wild is they play the same even though they have different coaches. They play a similar style of basketball. They spread you out, they do a heck of a job moving the ball around and playing together as a team. I don't think the guys will understand it, but it is wild that the last time I was here we played them."
It is never easy for a new coach to take established players accustomed to someone else and mold them into a winning team. But McDonald and his staff did that.
"There was a lot to be done with the transition. You really have to get to know the players before they start to trust you. If you can do that, then you start to make some progress. There's different philosophies, different ways you run things.
"We have an incredible coaching staff, and that helped in the transition. And we have some really good kids who work hard. It took us awhile to get going, but once we understood how hard we had to work, and when we started practicing with a full practice squad, then we started to get better every day."
A early season neutral court upset of #1 seed Louisville, 68-54, demonstrated the Hilltoppers' potential. But losses at Houston, Murray State and a 72-40 blowout at Evansville can be attributed to growing pains.
"We need to show up like we did the Louisville game and not the Evansville game. Early in the season, we were still trying to find ourselves. Even after a success, we would have a speed bump. We were still learning at that point in the season, getting to know each other. I think the coaching staff was still adjusting to the players. We had to either get better or stay the same.
"One thing happened with our losses early in the year, we got better every day. I think we are playing our best basketball right now, which is where you want to be."
Coach McDonald had some good returning talent with which to work, and he added some players through recruiting. It helped that he was willing to adapt his philosophy to the abilities of his team.
"I'm not the kind of guy who says we're gonna do it this way no matter who we have. I definitely want to give us the best chance to win. We were able to add a couple pieces late in recruiting in the spring that has helped."
McDonald had the benefit of starting out with two outstanding guards, 6'-3", 180 pound junior A.J. Slaughter and 6'-1", 185 pound senior Orlando Mendez-Valdez. The latter was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Sun Belt Conference this season. McDonald admitted to some surprise with the selection.
"It came a little bit out of the blue. After being around him, I thought A.J. Slaughter would have a chance to be conference player of the year. He's a very talented, athletic quick kid. I thought he would have a chance.
"I really fell in love with his game over the first month or so, his attitude, his toughness, and all the things he brings to the table. He had played point the year before. I took him off the point for more of a two.
"I wanted him to play a scoring role for us. That wasn't quite his role, so I didn't know how far we could go with that. But I thought he and Orlando would have a chance because they are appreciated by coaches and writers."
Slaughter leads the team with a 15.8 point scoring average per game, and Mendez-Valdez isn't far behind at 14.0. Joining them in the backcourt is Steffphon Pettigrew, a 6'-5", 225 sophomore who averages 12.7 points. The three are all outstanding three point threats, with their shooting percentages from the three point line .368, .406, and .367 respectively.
Sergio Kerusch, 6'-5", 210 plays a power forward spot despite his moderate height. He is also averaging in double figures at 11.2 points a game and leads the team with a 7.4 per game rebounding average. Center Jeremy Evans, a 6'-9", 190 pound junior, is the other starter and averages 8.7 points and 5.9 rebounds a game. D. J. Magley (6'-9", 255), Anthony Sally (6'-2", 185) and Dejan Cvoro (6'-5", 185) all see time for the Hilltoppers.
McDonald summarized his perimeter-oriented team.
"We have very good guards. We shoot the 3 pretty well. We play pretty much like Illinois. We spread you out, a lot of ball screens and a lot of motion principles with our offense.
"We have a little bit of a mismatch team. We play a guy at the 4 who's a little undersized. He can do some things off the dribble. We're looking at about 7-8 players who shoot the ball well, rebound well and play hard."
The guards will be tough for Illinois to defend. If WKU has a weakness, it might be post defense since it is playing small.
"I suspect that, if they're watching our tape, our post defense at times isn't where it needs to be. I think they also step out and shoot the ball well at the four and five spots. In that respect, they're a little similar to us. I don't think they're gonna go away from what they do because I think they move the ball extremely well and move without the ball extremely well.
"We'll have to be locked in defensively from the start. Post defense is gonna be big. We've been pretty good there for the most part. I don't think they're gonna change their game plan a whole lot."
McDonald was asked if he felt it an advantage that Seth Davis and some other pundits have envisioned Western Kentucky an upset pick over Illinois in the Tournament. After all, there seems to be one 12 seed upsetting a 5 seed every year.
"I've been on both sides of it. No one predicted us to do anything this year, and we've achieved every goal we set out to do. Everyone has to have a 5-12 upset, so it is a compliment. But we're not going to take anything lightly, and we're still gonna play with a chip on our shoulders. More people than not are picking us to lose. For the most part, I don't think most people are going to give us a chance. I appreciate Seth stepping up."
Western Kentucky has a proud basketball tradition. Illinois coach Bruce Weber got his start as an assistant to Hall of Famer Gene Keady at WKU, and there have been other great ones there as well. That tradition has not been lost on Ken McDonald.
"We try almost daily to talk about it. It's one of the storied programs in all of basketball. I think we're third in the country for conference championships behind Kentucky. Some of the accolades this program has reached are incredible.
"Even this year, people said we were gonna have a down year, I talked about nothing but dominating the conference, winning a conference title outright, getting to the NCAA Tournament. That's the bar we set at WKU. We like going into the Sun Belt Tournament as a 1 seed. We don't look at it as pressure, we look at it as opportunity. Yet, we do know that bar is always up there, and we're trying to reach it."
If McDonald has one regret, it is that WKU must face Illinois in Portland, Oregon. It is a beautiful city, but it is too far for most fans to travel to support their teams.
"I'm disappointed for our fans. It's a beautiful city. It's a trip that's gonna take awhile to get there. We have a terrific fan base, but it doesn't allow them to get there, to be honest. We don't have control of that. We'll still have a good following. I know Illinois has a terrific following as well. So I think on both fronts you're losing some fans."