Advancing beyond the first round of the last two NCAA tournaments hasn't stopped Western Kentucky from getting overshadowed in its home state.
Kentucky has garnered more offseason attention than any program in the country since John Calipari arrived from Memphis and signed the nation's top-ranked recruiting class. The off-court drama surrounding Louisville coach Rick Pitino has emerged as the summer's biggest soap opera.
In the meantime, Western Kentucky doesn't mind its familiar role of operating under the radar.
"It's kind of fun going into games and beating big schools," Western Kentucky guard A.J. Slaughter said. "We do really well when we're the underdog. When people aren't expecting us to do anything is when we have a chip on our shoulder and do really well."
Slaughter and Co. may need to find a new incentive. Western Kentucky's underdog status is about to expire.
Picked to finish third in the Sun Belt's East Division last season, Western Kentucky instead went 25-9 and captured its second conference title in a row. Now that the Hilltoppers return four starters from that team, they head into the 2009-10 season as a clear-cut favorite to win the Sun Belt again.
Western Kentucky is one of 17 schools - Siena is the only other one from outside the six major conferences - to advance beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament each of the last two years.
Slaughter said he believes the experience of this year's Western Kentucky team makes it superior to the 2008-09 squad that reached the second round. He believes this year's edition might even rival the 2007-08 team that advanced to the Sweet 16 and featured first-round draft pick Courtney Lee.
"The difference with this team is we have more guys who can do multiple things," Slaughter said. "We can bring guys off the bench and we won't lose a beat. We're really light-years ahead of last year's team. We weren't really that good last year. This team can do some damage."
Slaughter could cause the most damage.
The 6-foot-3 senior averaged 16 points per game last season and was named the most valuable player of the Sun Belt tournament. He also delivered his best games in the Hilltoppers' biggest moments. Slaughter averaged 19 points per game in the NCAA tournament last year and collected 25 points and nine rebounds in an early season upset of Louisville.
Slaughter heads into his senior season as arguably the Sun Belt's best overall player, even though he will be adapting to a new role this season. After alternating between each guard spot last year, Slaughter will play primarily point guard this year as the Hilltoppers attempt to replace 2008-09 Sun Belt male athlete of the year Orlando Mendez-Valdez.
"I feel at home at both positions," Slaughter said.
Slaughter is comfortable enough in his new situation that he has set a goal of averaging 20 points and five assists per game. But this team is no mere one-man show.
The Hilltoppers also return 6-5 forward Steffphon Pettigrew (12.7 points per game last year), 6-5 forward Sergio Kerusch (11.2) and 6-9 forward Jeremy Evans (8.8). Slaughter said he believes Western Kentucky's improved depth will allow the Hilltoppers to press more often this season.
"We didn't press a lot last year because we didn't have that many players," Slaughter said. "This year we have enough guys who can come off the bench that we can press some more and get up and down the floor."
The Hilltoppers boast so much depth that they should be able to withstand the losses of recruits David Laury and Terrence Boyd. Western Kentucky dismissed Laury from the team in July and released Boyd a couple of weeks later. Boyd, a 6-5 forward, was the No. 64 prospect in the 2009 recruiting class. Laury, a 6-8 forward, had signed with Western Kentucky in April.
Western Kentucky already has overcome the loss of much bigger weapons.
The Hilltoppers lost one of their top players in school history (Lee) and watched former coach Darrin Horn head to South Carolina after their Sweet 16 berth in 2008. That didn't stop Western Kentucky from returning to the tournament last year in the first season of Ken McDonald's coaching tenure.
A bittersweet conclusion to that season assures the Hilltoppers won't be resting on their laurels. Western Kentucky came achingly close to making consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, but Demetri Goodson made a 6-foot runner with nine-tenths of a second remaining in Gonzaga's 83-81 second-round victory over the Hilltoppers.
That heartbreaking loss provides even more motivation for Western Kentucky to return to the tournament this year. And this time, the Hilltoppers are setting their sights even higher.
"It makes us hungrier to get past the Sweet 16," Slaughter said. "I think we want to go up this season and get past that Sweet 16 mark and see what the Elite Eight's like."
Guarded optimism at Georgia Tech
The arrival of 6-10 freshman forward/center Derrick Favors - the nation's No. 3 prospect - has dominated most of the favorable preseason reports coming out of Georgia Tech, but Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt said he believes his team's greatest improvement could come from its backcourt.
Georgia Tech is considered a potential NCAA tournament team despite going 12-19 overall and 2-14 in Atlantic Coast Conference competition last season.
"I think a lot of people point to the addition of Derrick and think that that will be the big difference," Hewitt said. "But last year I thought Zachery Peacock, Gani Lawal and [since-departed] Alade Aminu played extremely well. I thought that frontcourt was as good as any in the league maybe with the exception of North Carolina's.
"I think our backcourt will be the big difference this year. We have Mfon Udofia, and having D'Andre Bell back is as important as any addition we've had in the last year."
Bell averaged 7.3 points per game and emerged as a solid defender two years ago, but the 6-6 swingman sat out the entire 2008-09 season after being diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal in the lower back.
College of Charleston is expected to contend for the Southern Conference title this season, but the Cougars' hopes received a blow recently with the announcement that junior forward Antwaine Wiggins will miss the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Wiggins made 36 starts and averaged 8.3 points and 3.9 rebounds last year to help the Cougars go 27-9. College of Charleston coach Bobby Cremins called Wiggins the team's best defensive player.
Iowa coach Todd Lickliter is hoping his players are movie buffs or horse racing fans, judging from the reference he used to describe the low expectations surrounding the Hawkeyes. Most preseason forecasts have Iowa finishing near the bottom of the Big Ten. "Some of my favorite stories are the ones where the non-favorites are the ones that came out on top," Lickliter said this week. "The movie 'Seabiscuit' comes to mind. What a talented, talented horse, but he wasn't chosen to win like he did. And that made it special, to the point where we enjoy the story."
Louisville's turbulent offseason continued last weekend when senior guard Jerry Smith and sophomore forward Terrence Jennings were arrested after off-duty police attempted to break up a fight at a party in Jeffersonville, Ind. Police are asking prosecutors to charge both with resisting law enforcement, battery and disorderly conduct. Jennings has since apologized to police and party organizers. Jennings reportedly said he was provoked by someone he didn't know. Louisville coach Rick Pitino has indicated he would handle the matter internally.
Ohio State center Dallas Lauderdale broke a bone in his right hand during a Monday workout and will miss four to six weeks. Lauderdale averaged 4.7 points and 3.6 rebounds while making 31 starts last year. Lauderdale's injury could result in expanded roles for 7-foot UAB transfer Zisis Sarikopoulos and 6-9 senior Kyle Madsen at the start of the season.
UCLA forward James Keefe injured his left shoulder last week and should be out three to five more weeks. Keefe also had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder two years ago, causing him to miss the first 12 games of the 2007-08 season. Keefe averaged 3.0 points and 3.4 rebounds in 14.2 minutes last season.
Auburn forward Johnnie Lett still hasn't come all the way back from an ankle injury that limited him to 21 games last season. Lett made eight starts last year and averaged 2.8 points, 3.4 rebounds and 12.7 minutes per game. "We're still trying to get Johnnie Lett healthy," Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said this week. "He is about 70 percent right now. He was about to participate in some preseason workouts, but he is not close to being 100 percent." Auburn needs Lett to provide depth on a frontcourt that must replace departed four-year starter Korvotney Barber.