Hilltoppers prepping for Louisville visit
Louisville has built its early season resume by ripping off nine wins in 10 games at its new downtown arena against largely overmatched competition.
Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald has the Hilltoppers taking a drastically different approach. A month into the season Western Kentucky has already played Minnesota, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Memphis, with mixed results.
Shaky point guard play and the inability of an upgraded but somewhat unproven roster to gel have the Hilltoppers (5-6) struggling heading into Wednesday night's rare home game against the Cardinals. McDonald has no regrets about putting together an ambitious schedule, though, aware that the best way for a mid-major program to make people notice is by taking on anyone.
''We easily could have scheduled three more wins, but I don't think that does us more justice at the end of the day when it comes to conference play,'' he said. ''This is the way to go.''
Western Kentucky's inability to get marquee nonconference wins will resonate in March, which means the pressure will be on the Hilltoppers in what will be an electric at E.A. Diddle Arena.
That's fine by McDonald, who thinks his team could use a little bit of urgency.
''At times we haven't played with enough emotion, enough heart, enough passion for the game,'' he said. ''That comes with new guys and totally understanding and buying into the team setting. We just have to let it go.''
The Hilltoppers were an overwhelming preseason pick to win the Sun Belt's East Division, thanks largely to the arrival of Oklahoma transfer Juan Patillo, who has given Western Kentucky a much-needed boost in the middle.
Patillo has been just fine, averaging 13.8 points and 10.0 rebounds. The bigger problem has come in the backcourt. McDonald dismissed point guard Ken Brown earlier this month for violating the team's academic policy.
The move forced McDonald to put freshman Brandon Peters in charge of the offense. The learning curve has been bumpy. The Hilltoppers are turning it over more than 17 times a game, not exactly the way to install an uptempo attack.
''We're not able to push the ball like we want, not able to get into sets like we need to at times,'' McDonald said. ''At the same time, when you're playing comp like we're playing, there's not a lot of room for error.''
Western Kentucky's inexperience and its difficult schedule hasn't allowed McDonald to experiment much. His players have to learn on the fly, and the progress has been slow.
''We need to get a little bit of our confidence back,'' he said.
A win over the Cardinals would certainly help. Louisville is among the early surprises after knocking off Butler and UNLV at home. Not bad for a team forced to replace its top three scorers from a year ago while learning coach Rick Pitino's revamped offensive style.
Still, Pitino has been pleased with the results, though all the success has come at the sparkling KFC Yum! Center. Louisville's game against Western Kentucky will be its first on the road - even if it is, literally, just down the road.
''It'll be a good test for us going on the road going into the Big East,'' Pitino said.
And if his team is a little overconfident, he need only point to the last time the Cardinals played the Hilltoppers away from home. Western Kentucky shocked the third-ranked Cardinals in Nashville two years ago, a game that served as a wake-up call. Louisville went on to win the Big East regular-season and conference tournament titles.
It marked the first signature win in McDonald's head coaching career. He laughs at the memory, knowing it won't mean a thing when the ball goes up Wednesday.
''It's tough. You've got to keep everything in perspective. It's one game, one opportunity,'' he said. ''We have to understand if we're continuing to improve our patience level has to stay there so we can go into the conference with confidence.''