For the third time in eight games, Western faces up against a Southeastern Conference opponent on Friday night. For the first time, they’ll look to notch a victory.
Western and Vanderbilt tip Friday at 8:37 p.m. CT in Nashville’s Sommet Center, the scene of last season’s 14-point victory over then-No. 3 Louisville. Head coach Ken McDonald said now is the best time to show the SEC what the Toppers are made of.
“We’ve had two opportunities to step out of conference — and not so much make a statement — but represent ourselves the way we want to,” McDonald said. “Now we have another chance to go against a top-25 team that’s an excellent basketball team.”
McDonald said Western’s keys to winning are simple: to start strong, have production from the bench and get senior guard Anthony Sally back in the game.
Sally is averaging 3.4 turnovers per game and has come off the bench in Western’s last two contests. In Sally’s absence, senior guard A.J. Slaughter has played extra minutes at the point.
McDonald said that for Slaughter to get back to scoring, Sally has to get back to passing.
“It puts a different dynamic to our team,” McDonald said. “On the offensive end, we do need (Sally) to go in and make some plays and get guys some easy shots. It’s really tough for A.J. to do both. We’re asking him to go in and distribute, we’re asking him to go in and score. Somebody’s got to score.”
Vanderbilt has signature wins against Arizona and Missouri, but the Commodores have lost on both of their looks at the national stage this season, to Purdue and Illinois.
Regardless, they’ve managed to preserve the No. 24 spot in the ESPN/USA Today poll and come into Friday’s game a double-digit favorite.
Slaughter said Vanderbilt’s status puts Western in a familiar spot.
“We definitely kind of have that chip on our shoulder like last year,” Slaughter said. “A lot of people don’t think we can go in and get a win against Vanderbilt. We’re going to go out and play tough as a team on both ends.”
More quotes from McDonald
McDonald on his quote, we’re “light years” ahead of where we were this time last season:
“It’s a totally different team from the standpoint in practice…I think early in the season when I made those comments, that’s based on potential. Would you like that potential to be here yesterday? No question. But you’ve got to see how it is when the lights go on and how people respond.”
On the Toppers’ recent success at the Sommet Center:
“We’re going to have a great fanbase down in Nashville. We’re excited about that — excited about the opportunity to play a quality opponent, and the bottom line is, we’ve got to put together 40 minutes of basketball. But we’ve been comfortable in that environment. It is like an NCAA Tournament. I just want our guys to embrace that atmosphere.”
On junior forward Steffphon Pettigrew’s contributions:
“It’s like I said from day one. He does anything you ask him to do. He would do the laundry if we asked him to do the laundry. That’s the kind of kid he is. He has such a workman’s approach to everything, it’s like he clocks in. You just know what you’re going to get every day. It’s easy to not so much forget about him — you don’t want to underappreciate what he does — but he’s so quiet. Sometimes you don’t even realize it until you look at that stat sheet or you watch film.”
Follow the Herald’s live blog here and look for a full story at wkuherald.com after the game.