Just got in from WKU’s press conference going into the Toppers’ game at Louisville on Saturday. Head coach Ken McDonald had a few interesting points, and players Steffphon Pettigrew and Sergio Kerusch provided insight as well.
The Toppers are seemingly hitting their stride going into this contest and have history on their side. After their 76-69 victory over then-no.24 ranked Vanderbilt on Friday night at the Sommet Center in Nashville and considering last season’s 68-54 win over then-No.3 Louisville (also in the Sommet Center), WKU has the motivation to play the Cardinals, who are on a two-game home losing skid right now going into a game at home against Oral Roberts tonight.
But that is what McDonald believes is just one of the factors in getting the team ready for peak performance:
“It starts with our defense and our rebounding,” he said. “Once again, it takes a lot of pressure off our offense. Every possession, when you get down eight to 10 points, double digits, you start to feel a pressure that you have to take over the game and you have to make shots, and you can lose confidence in a hurry on the offensive end and it snowballs. So I think we’ve done a good job with that, turning that around and understanding that each four minutes, if we take care of the defense and rebounding, we’re going to have a lot more confidence on the offensive end.”
A game like this could also be a trap game for the Toppers going down the road. WKU followed its win over Louisville last season with a 72-40 loss at Evansville two games later. It was the Toppers lowest point total all season and the worst game offensively by far on the year. But McDonald isn’t expecting a drop-off in this type of game.
“If you can’t get excited and be intense going into Louisville, with one of the great venues in the country with an unbelievable environment,” McDonald said. “First of all, we’ve got to go in with an ‘us against the world’ mentality, because we haven’t been in this environment yet. It’ll be louder than we’re used to. We’ve got a chance to do something special with our team and with all that said, continue to build toward our goals of being a good basketball team at the end of the year.”
On the court, these teams couldn’t be going in more different directions. WKU’s win over Vandy, coupled with UofL’s two-game losing streak, could spell a second-straight victory over the Cardinals for the Toppers. A great majority of this team’s nucleus is back from last season’s win — most importantly, senior forward Jeremy Evans and junior forward Steffphon Pettigrew, who were instrumental in shutting down Louisville’s marquee forwards, Samardo Samuels and Earl Clark, in last year’s game. Clark is gone, replaced primarily by sophomore Terrence Jennings, but Samuels still remains. It will be up to those two again to make sure he doesn’t get many touches.
Added motivation comes from the Kentucky kids like Pettigrew, senior guard A.J. Slaughter and freshman guard Jamal Crook, who played in the state but were recruited lightly or not at all by Louisville.
“Every time you play a Kentucky school, you go in there and you play as hard as you can and play the best game you have,” Pettigrew said.
Pettigrew also added that the team will be focusing on the Cardinals’ 2-3 zone that has become, along with the full court press, one of UofL head coach Rick Pitino’s staples as of late. The zone definitely has holes, especially on the perimeter, which can lead to a number of good looks from three-point range if the Cardinals don’t close out. And with the quick trigger on players like Slaughter, Kerusch and freshman guards Caden Dickerson and Jameson Tipping, if the looks fall, it could get interesting.
“I think last year was last year,” Kerusch said. “And I think that (Louisville) can draw more motivation than we can because we won. Their coach can be telling them, ‘We underestimated them last year. We’re not doing that this year.’ It’s a big game, winning against Vanderbilt. We’ve got a great confidence, and I think we found our chemistry.”
On the guard end of the spectrum, Kerusch and Slaughter will be the ones asked to control the tempo. The loss of Orlando Mendez-Valdez shouldn’t factor too much. Mendez-Valdez only scored five points in last year’s game, while Slaughter dropped in a game-high 25. Kerusch will likely be the man counted on in this game to back up Slaughter. Kerusch only scored five points on 1-for-10 shooting last time out against the Cardinals.