Maybe it’s time for another WKU Basketball ‘reset’

Western Kentucky basketball lost again tonight, another lackluster performance in what has been an abysmal season that, like so many others, started with so much hype, and I have some thoughts about the last 15 years of Hilltopper Basketball.

To start, I go back to March 2008. I had just decided on WKU as my college of choice, and I remember watching the NCAA Tournament with so much excitement as Ty Rogers delivered an all-time March Madness moment with a buzzer-beater to upset Drake in the first round and spark a Sweet 16 run. The following season followed a similar script under first-year head coach Ken McDonald, hired to replace Darrin Horn — another conference title, another 12-5 upset in the first round (this time over Illinois) and nearly another Sweet 16 berth, if not for a buzzer-beater by Gonzaga. Nonetheless, I remember being excited about the future of the program and the potential for WKU to do what we’ve seen so many other mid-majors like Butler, VCU and Loyola-Chicago do — consistently make the NCAA Tournament and put together deep runs.

The next two seasons, however, the team missed the NCAA Tournament and the program was riddled with dysfunction. Rumors swirled about McDonald’s off-court behavior, players fought with each other on bus trips, over social media and (literally) in the locker room. At one point, in one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen, one player (Cliff Dixon, RIP), quit the team at halftime and, I kid you not, sat in the stands watching the rest of the game. The team had so much dysfunction and so many problems that McDonald took the names off the back of the jerseys. He would’ve been fired after the 2010-11 season if not for the objectively strong recruiting class he put together that included George Fant, Derrick Gordon and T.J. Price. In an infamous press conference, then-athletic director Ross Bjork sat next to McDonald as they both pledged to “hit the reset button” on the program as McDonald agreed to a revised contract with a pay cut. #TeamReset became a popular hashtag and rally phrase for the team but a source of laughs for those covering the team and those skeptical of the decision to retain McDonald.

There was a lot of excitement for the 2011-12 season (which I covered for the College Heights Herald) because of these freshmen, but once again that season was marred with problems. Losses mounted, but perhaps the best microcosm of the season came when WKU lost a game in which the opponent had six men on the floor when it scored the winning basket, and no WKU players or coaches realized it. McDonald was fired the next morning, and Ray Harper — who himself had plenty of baggage of his own — was named interim head coach.

To Harper’s credit, he got the team to play hard, and they ended up making a miraculous run to win the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and, despite having a losing record, automatically qualifying for the NCAA Tournament as a 16 seed. They put together an incredible late comeback to beat Mississippi Valley State in a play-in game in Dayton, then lost to eventual champion Kentucky in the first round. Optimism was high with this young group, and Harper was officially given the keys to the program. They made the NCAA Tournament again in 2013, though it was once again as a 16 seed — a far cry from what WKU fans had grown accustomed to. Predictably, the Hilltoppers lost to No. 1 seeded Kansas.

Over the next 10 years, some of the best players in program history, or least recent memory, would come through — Justin Johnson, Charles Bassey, Taeveion Hollingsworth, Josh Anderson and Dayvion McKnight, among others. During that stretch, though, there was more drama. Harper once again left a program in disgrace as he was more or less forced to resign after three players were suspended for what were rumored to be some pretty gross violations. Harper won a lot of folks over with his charm, but this outcome was rather predictable to anyone who followed his career at Kentucky Wesleyan and beyond.

Rick Stansbury was then named the head coach, a seemingly good hire and someone known as an excellent recruiter. That has proven to be true just about every season he’s been at WKU. The one knock against him, though, has always been that he just can’t win regularly with the talent he gets. That, too, has proven to be true, especially of late.

Early in his tenure, WKU made it to the Final Four of the NIT. Once again, it was a postseason run with a young team that bred a lot of optimism and excitement. The next two seasons ended in crushing losses in the CUSA championship game, and then COVID took away what might have been a CUSA Tournament win in 2020. But 2021 ended just as the previous two did — a crushing loss in the CUSA championship game, this time with some of their best players in their final year at WKU.

Last year ended in a quarterfinal round loss (WKU’s first game of the tournament due to byes), and that brings us to this season. WKU benefitted greatly from the transfer portal, adding Khristian Lander from Indiana, Dontaie Allen from Kentucky, Emmanuel Akot from Boise State, and Jordan Rawls returned to WKU after transferring away two years ago. On paper, this is still easily the best roster in CUSA with several players who transferred from high major programs. A former five start recruit is coming off the bench, for goodness sake!

Yet, here we sit on January 26, and the Hilltoppers are just one game above .500 after a loss to lowly FIU. They’ve gone through several spurts of bad losses, and it all started with an embarrassing blowout loss to then-winless Louisville in December. Still, they’re losing conference games in what is now a weaker CUSA due to several good programs moving to the Sun Belt. These are games WKU should not only be winning, but dominating. Barring a miraculous CUSA Tournament run by a team that now appears dead in the water, WKU is looking at a full decade NCAA Tournament drought, though in some sense it feels longer. The last two trips as 16 seeds hardly felt like genuine NCAA berths. Before this recent drought, WKU had never gone more than six years without an NCAA Tournament (which only happened once) aside from a 20-year absence between 1940 and 1960.

It’s a sad state of affairs for a once-proud program that still ranks in the Top 10 all-time in winning percentage and in the Top 15 all-time in wins.

In my estimation, the current issues with the basketball program can be traced back to a series of decisions before and after the 2008 Sweet 16 run when WKU failed to capitalize on the basketball momentum. First, by the time I got to WKU in Fall 2008, the move to FBS football was underway. WKU wanted a seat at the big kid’s table and thought chasing the money in college football was the way to go. It planted its stake in that field and started the process of selling its soul for football success. What had long been a school whose sports identity was basketball was in the process of becoming a football school, though it was hard to tell in the midst of a 26-game losing streak at the start of their FBS adventure.

Simultaneously, McDonald was hired as the new head basketball coach. He came highly recommended after years on Rick Barnes’ staff at Texas and had spent four years as an assistant coach at WKU earlier in his career. However, his hiring proved to be a massive mistake. Perhaps that wasn’t known at the time given his pedigree, and I don’t know who the other candidates were, but he clearly ended up not being the right guy for the job. The 2009 run was largely due to a talented roster of holdovers from the 2008 run, and McDonald’s issues proved themselves over the next 2.5 seasons. Firing him was the right move, but WKU shot itself in the foot when then-athletic director Ross Bjork turned around gave Harper the full-time job later in the season. It was a shortsighted move that mostly happened because the fans were clamoring for it. Bjork then bolted to become the AD at Ole Miss less than a week after WKU’s loss to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament.

WKU missed the mark on the McDonald hire, and now had a chance to make up for it with a strong hire to get the program back on track. But rather than interview potential candidates from what would’ve been a sizable pool of good coaches, Bjork made the easy, lazy decision. WKU once again missed out on capitalizing on momentum and had to “reset” once again just a few years later when Harper had to resign (though this time they were wise enough not to go back to that corny hashtag).

I actually liked the Stansbury hire, and for most of his tenure, I’ve kept the faith in him. He’s a great person, good for the community, seems to really enjoy coaching at WKU, and he does bring in great talent. He brought a wealth of coaching experience and has seemingly been content to ride out the end of his career in Bowling Green. For a school that is prone to being used as a stepping stone for most coaches, the stability that Stansbury brought was indeed attractive, especially if he could recruit well and win here. They’ve won 20+ games four times and have won a regular season title, and his teams have beaten several ranked opponents. By many accounts, he’s delivered on what fans could’ve hoped for, and if the ball had gone WKU’s way a couple times at the end of those championship games, we’d probably be talking about a couple more NCAA Tournament berths and possibly a Sweet 16 run or two. Those teams had that kind of talent.

But that didn’t happen, and the fact still remains that WKU is in the longest NCAA Tournament drought in program history since that 1940-1960 gap. For a proud fanbase, getting close doesn’t cut it. And unless something changes very soon, it doesn’t look like that drought will be ending this season.

Which brings me to my final point: I’m starting to lose interest in following WKU basketball, and I don’t think I’m alone. Watching the same script play out year after year is getting old, and I’m just getting bored. This year’s team looks like it is, too.

Rooting for a mid-major program is already tough and, at times, excruciating. When you really think about it, the regular season largely does not matter; all that matters is whether they play well enough over a 3-4 stretch in early March to win the conference tournament. You basically wait a whole calendar year to see if maybe this is the year they finally win the conference tournament. Perhaps they could put together a year like FAU is this year and maybe get an at-large bid, but at this point CUSA is largely a one-bid league. It will almost always come down to winning the conference tournament.

WKU has been able to win 20+ games and beat ranked teams, but there are always a handful of head-scratching losses to bad teams that negate whatever benefit those wins would have. Sadly, we’re at the point where a lot of WKU fans feel like it’s the same script every year: great recruiting class, lots of hype, a couple good wins, but ultimately it ends in disappointment. I appreciate that this year’s team is just going straight to the disappointment without stringing us along. This team has a lot of great guys on it with high character, which I genuinely am happy about, but it’s just not working, and I can’t understand why.

I think there’s a good amount of WKU fans that are also becoming more and more disinterested with each bad loss. And I never want to call on someone to lose their job, but I have to wonder if the Rick Stansbury Experience has run its course.

WKU put most of its eggs in the football basket years ago, at a time when it was crucial to capitalize on the momentum of its basketball success. It has indeed been exciting to see the program rise to the level it’s at now, with one of the most consistently prolific offenses in the country and consistent bowl game wins. It’s fun to see guys like Mike White, Bailey Zappe and Tyler Higbee balling out in the NFL. But, deep down, I and a lot of other Tops fans are basketball fans first. So while winning the Boca Raton Bowl and the New Orleans Bowl are fun, give me an NCAA Tournament run any day over those.

Perhaps it’s time for yet another WKU Basketball program reset. But for the sake of this fanbase, I hope those in charge learn from past mistakes.