Western Kentucky Basketball Preview: #53
Overall Rank: #53
Conference Rank: #1 Sun Belt Conference
2008-09: 25-9, 15-3
2008-09 postseason: NCAA
Coach: Ken McDonald (25-9 at Western Kentucky, 25-9 overall)
Western Kentucky had only six players who averaged over a dozen minutes per game last season. Five of them are back and that should be enough to get the Hilltoppers another Sun Belt Conference crown. Replacing Orlando Mendez-Valdez will not be easy, but WKU has replaced more important pieces of the puzzle over the last few years and they keep dominating the conference. Do not expect that to end this year.
Key Losses: G Dejan Cvoro, F D.J. Magley, G Orland Mendez-Valdez
The five returning players will probably start just about every game, so all this team needs from the newcomers is some depth. Freshmen Caden Dickerson, William Green, Jordan Swing and Jameson Tipping should be able to provide enough depth on the wings. Up front it will be junior college transfer Cliff Dixon and 6-8, 240 pound senior Nemanja Milosevic. Dixon, at 6-10, is the tallest player on the roster and should at least be a solid defender from day one. Milosevic is a big body who can step outside and hit the mid-range jumper.
Anthony Sally is the player who will take over for Mendez-Valdez. The 6-2 senior was a superb sixth man last year, dishing out 2.7 assists per game. The team rarely needed him to score, so Sally only averaged 4.1 points per game, but he is a capable shooter who can put the ball in the basket if WKU needs him to do so. But with A.J. Slaughter back after leading the team with 16.0 points per game, Sally might not have to do much scoring. Slaughter, who also added 3.6 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals on top of his 16.0 points, is a great all-around player and will once again be the leader of this team. Expect Sally and Slaughter to both handle the ball depending on the situation, much like Slaughter and Mendez-Valdez did last season.
The talent level does not drop off much at the forward positions. Steffphone Pettigrew and Sergio Kerusch might be listed as wings, but both can play the four spot. Pettigrew is the better shooter of the two and he averaged 12.7 points and 5.1 rebounds last year. Like Pettigrew, Kerush is only 6-5, but led the team last year with 7.4 rebounds per contest. Kerusch can stretch out the defense with his outside shooting ability, but he will do most of his scoring around the basket. And he can do a lot of scoring in a hurry. WKU may look a little undersized with Pettigrew and Kerusch, but those two play much bigger than 6-5.
Who to Watch:
While everybody else is hoisting up three’s or slashing to the basket, it is Jeremy Evans who does the dirty work in the paint. The 6-9 senior tallied 8.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last year and was the beneficiary of the rest of the explosive offensive weapons around him. Many times Slaughter would drive the lane and immediately get double teamed. A quick pass later and Evans had himself an easy two points. However, it is Evans’ ability on the other end of the floor that makes him so valuable. He blocked two shots per contest last year and he never makes it easy for the opposition to get into the paint.
There is enough talent in the starting five to win an NCAA Tournament game, but the key will be the contributions off the bench. Slaughter averaged nearly 35 minutes per game last year and it could be worse this time around on the perimeter unless the team starts shuffling Pettigrew to the two guard spot or one of the freshmen can turn into a consistent sixth man. The depth in the paint is better than it was last year, but Coach Ken McDonald really needs one of the freshmen guards to contribute immediately if this team expects to be even better than they were last year.
Projected Post-season Tournament: NCAA
Projected Starting Five:
Anthony Sally, Senior, Guard, 4.1 points per game
A.J. Slaughter, Senior, Guard, 16.0 points per game
Steffphon Pettigrew, Junior, Forward, 12.7 points per game
Sergio Kerusch, Junior, Forward, 11.2 points per game
Jeremy Evans, Senior, Forward, 8.8 points per game
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