George Fant and T.J. Price will go down as two of the greatest players in Hilltopper Basketball history, as both are 1,500-point scorers and have played in over 100 career games and are climbing the record books in numerous other categories.
T.J. Price leads C-USA in scoring at 17.9 points per game, and if it holds he would become the first Hilltopper to lead the league in scoring since Jack Jennings topped the SBC in 1991-92 (19.1 ppg).
WKU leads the all-time series 92-37, but Middle Tennessee has won seven of the last eight games in the rivalry in which both were members of the Sun Belt Conference.
WKU and UAB were Sun Belt Conference rivals from 1983-91, and UAB leads the all-time series between the two schools 18-10 and 11-3 in Birmingham.
After Saturday's game, WKU remains on the road Thursday at UAB and next Sunday at Middle Tennessee, before finishing the home portion of the schedule the following week against Florida Atlantic and FIU.
USATSI Gallery, men's basketball -- 12/13/14
Western Kentucky vs. Minnesota (USATSI)
USATSPI: Western Kentucky vs. Louisville - 12/14/13
After a 20-win season and the school's best finish in Sun Belt Conference play in five years in 2013-14 and on the heels of back-to-back Sun Belt Conference Tournament championships and NCAA Tournament appearances, Ray Harper enters his fourth season as Hilltopper head coach in 2014-15.
In three seasons under Harper, the Hilltoppers are 8-1 in conference tournament action, resulting in two championships and automatic berths to the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and 2013. WKU has secured back-to-back 20-win seasons the last two years, and by finishing second in the Sun Belt Conference in 2013-14, WKU laid claim to its best league finish since 2008-09, when Harper was an assistant coach.
In all, in 15 seasons as a collegiate head coach at Kentucky Wesleyan College, Oklahoma City University and WKU entering 2014-15, Harper has a 393-99 record (.799) and has won four national championships and five national coach of the year awards, and 13 of his 14 full-season squads won at least 20 contests.
The 2013-14 Hilltoppers went 20-12 on the season with a 12-6 mark in Sun Belt Conference play, which was good for a second-place finish in the league and the squad's best conference result since winning the east division title in 2008-09. WKU secured a double-bye to the semifinals of the conference tournament in March, meaning the Hilltoppers advanced to the semifinals of the league tournament in each of its final 10 seasons in the Sun Belt Conference and 23 of its 32 years as a conference member overall.
Harper and staff helped T.J. Price and George Fant to All-Sun Belt Conference recognition after the season, as Price was named a second-team performer and Fant was picked to the third team, both for the second-straight season. Chris Harrison-Docks was named the Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year after playing half of the season after sitting out due to NCAA transfer requirements after arriving from Butler, and he became the first conference freshman of the year from WKU since Courtney Lee in 2004-05.
WKU secured key wins in 2013-14 over NIT participant Southern Miss and CIT champion Murray State to go along with its 12 conference victories, and WKU battled NCAA Tournament number-one seed Wichita State in the season opener and sixth-ranked Louisville on the road in non-conference play.
As successful as the 2013-14 season was under Harper, his first two years of 2011-12 and 2012-13 were even more remarkable.
After a 2012-13 regular season plagued with injuries to multiple key players in December and January, the Hilltoppers began to hit their stride in mid-February and finished the regular season winning three of their last four games, with the only loss coming to conference champion Middle Tennessee.
Seeded sixth in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in Hot Springs, Ark., WKU won four games in four days for the second-straight season to win the tournament championship, becoming the first team in NCAA history to achieve the feat in back-to-back seasons. From there, the Hilltoppers advanced to the NCAA Tournament, where they put a scare into top-seeded Kansas before dropping a hard-fought, seven-point decision in Kansas City, Mo.
WKU finished the 2012-13 season with a 20-16 record, giving the program its 41st 20-win season. Harper helped George Fant and T.J. Price to All-Sun Belt Conference recognition in 2012-13, and Price was named the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Most Outstanding Player, giving WKU the most outstanding player in each of the last two tournaments.
After taking the helm of the team in a tough situation midway through the 2011-12 season Harper began to put his stamp on the program, and the team responded in a big way. The Hilltoppers went 11-8 after he took over and 7-1 after he was named full-time head coach, which came after starting the season with a 5-11 record.
In winning seven of its last eight games, WKU won a game against conference rival Arkansas State on a buzzer beater, defeated conference champion Middle Tennessee two days later in front of a sell-out crowd at E.A. Diddle Arena and then stormed through the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in Hot Springs, Ark., capturing four wins in four days to earn its eighth tournament title and head to the NCAA Tournament for the 22nd time.
Seeded seventh in the conference tournament, WKU defeated FIU, second-seeded UALR, third-seeded Denver and number five North Texas to become the lowest seed to win the conference tournament in 35 years of Sun Belt Conference postseason competition.
WKU was seeded 16th in the NCAA Tournament and traveled to Dayton to play Mississippi Valley State in the first round on March 13, where it earned a thrilling 59-58 win after erasing a 16-point deficit with 4:51 to play, which set an NCAA Tournament record for the largest comeback with under 5:00 remaining. The Hilltoppers then headed to Louisville, where they took on tournament top-seeded and number-one Kentucky and saw their season end with an 81-66 loss.
By defeating Mississippi Valley State, WKU captured wins in three-straight NCAA Tournament appearances (2008, 2009, 2012) and became one of just 23 teams in the nation with at least one win in three of the five tournaments from 2008-12.
In all, WKU finished the season with a 16-19 record, and freshman guard Derrick Gordon was named to the All-Sun Belt Conference Third Team. His 412 points scored were the third-most by a freshman in WKU history, and fellow rookies George Fant (321) and T.J. Price (270) cemented their places on the list in seventh and ninth, respectively, thanks in part to Harper's coaching efforts.
Harper was named WKU's 14th full-time head coach in its illustrious men's basketball history on February 19, 2012, after leading the Hilltoppers on an interim basis since January 6 of that year.
Harper's stellar head coaching resume prior to WKU includes four national championships in 12 seasons at Kentucky Wesleyan College and Oklahoma City University, five national runner-up finishes, eight conference titles, five national coach-of-the-year honors and a remarkable .844 winning percentage after winning 342 of 405 games at his two stops before WKU.
In his nine years at Kentucky Wesleyan in Owensboro, Ky., Harper laid claim to seven NCAA coaching records, surpassing Division I record-holders in all instances, including becoming the fastest to 200 wins (224 games), holding the most consecutive 30-win seasons (6) and compiling the most wins in each of the first four-through-eight seasons of his career.
With NCAA Division II title game appearances each season from 1998-2003, the Bremen, Ky., native became the first NCAA head coach since John Wooden to appear in six-straight NCAA National Championship games.
The NCAA requires a minimum of 10 seasons at the Division II level to officially qualify for its list of head coaching records, but Harper's nine-year record of 247-46 at Kentucky Wesleyan would give him the best winning percentage in Division II history at .843, topping Walter Harris, who led Philadelphia University to a 240-56 record (.811) in 13 seasons spanning the mid-1950s and 1960s.
After capturing his second-straight NAIA Division I national title at Oklahoma City in 2007-08, Harper accepted a job as an assistant coach at WKU. As a part of head coach Ken McDonald's staff, Harper was instrumental in WKU's two 20-win seasons in 2008-09 and 2009-10, its 2009 Sun Belt Conference Regular Season and Tournament Championships and run to the second round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
Harper was in the middle of his fourth season as an assistant coach at WKU when he was asked to take over the program 16 games into the 2011-12 campaign. The Hilltoppers were 5-11 at that point, and in Harper's 11 games as interim head coach the team rebounded and won four games, lost four others by six points or fewer and climbed from last place in the Sun Belt Conference East Division to as high as third in just five games in late January and early February.
With a 75-66 win over South Alabama on February 4, 2012, Harper earned his 250th career victory as an NCAA head coach in just his 300th career game.
Hilltopper Nation responded extremely well after Harper took over on an interim basis. In the nine home games prior to Harper being named head coach WKU was averaging just over 3,000 fans per game at E.A. Diddle Arena, but in four home games under Harper crowds swelled to an average of 5,105 fans per contest.
He helped guide Oklahoma City to a 95-17 mark the three seasons prior to joining the WKU staff, with the Stars claiming two-straight NAIA Division I National Championships. Oklahoma City ended the 2007-08 campaign at 31-7, capturing the national title. The previous year, the Stars were 35-2 and won the national championship. In his first year leading the program, Oklahoma City posted a 29-8 mark and were runners-up in the NAIA Division I Tournament.
In his three years at the helm at Oklahoma City, Harper had six individuals earn NAIA Division I All-American recognition, highlighted by Ollie Bailey, who was selected as the National Player of the Year in 2007-08. In addition, 10 student-athletes were honored on the All-Sooner Athletic Conference Team and six made the NAIA Division I All-Tournament squad. Kameron Gray was named the tournament's most valuable player in both 2007 and 2008.
Harper's results at Kentucky Wesleyan were just as impressive, as he compiled a 247-46 record and an .843 winning percentage, and he led the Panthers to the 1999 and 2001 NCAA Division II National Championships. Kentucky Wesleyan won 30 or more games in six-straight seasons from 1998-2003, an NCAA all-division record, and claimed five Great Lakes Valley Conference regular season and tournament titles in his time with the program. The Panthers were 35-1 on their way to winning the program's first national title in 1999, while the 2001 squad posted a 31-3 finish.
Harper guided Kentucky Wesleyan to a 31-3 record for three-straight years from 2000-02, including winning 90 percent of the Panthers' league games over that span for a 54-6 mark. Harper's 1997-98 squad, which posted a 30-3 ledger, advanced to the national title game. Kentucky Wesleyan's amazing six-year run from 1998 to 2003 included two NCAA Division II titles (1999, 2001) and four runner-up finishes (1998, 2000, 2002 and 2003).
Harper was named the NCAA Division II National Coach of the Year four-straight years from 1999-2002, while earning the honor at the NAIA Division I level once with Oklahoma City following the 2008 title run. He was selected conference coach of the year on seven occasions, as well as the region coach of the year twice.
Through seven seasons, he had more victories than any coach at the NCAA Division I and II levels (210). Harper reached 200 wins in 224 games, which was faster than NCAA Division I record holder and Hall of Famer Clair Bee, who won 200 in 231 games.
On February 17, 2008, Harper's number 12 jersey was permanently retired at Kentucky Wesleyan, and the floor at Jones Gymnasium was named "Ray Harper Court."
He has also coached on the international level, having led USA Basketball men's junior team to a 7-1 record and a fifth-place finish at the 2003 FIBA World Championships in Greece.
Harper was an assistant coach at Kentucky Wesleyan for 10 years, including six as its associate head coach, prior to taking over the program. As an assistant, Harper aided the Panthers to a 235-66 record while they won the 1987 and 1990 NCAA Division II National Titles, also reaching the tournament two other times.
In fact, Kentucky Wesleyan won more than 20 contests in each of his first nine years on the staff, beginning with a 28-5 mark in 1986-87. The Panthers followed that performance with a 23-7 finish the following season and then went 24-7 in 1988-89, before posting a 31-2 record en route to the 1990 national title. Kentucky Wesleyan finished 22-8 the next year and was 23-8 in 1991-92 on the way to reaching the NCAA Division II Elite Eight. After recording a 21-6 mark in 1992-93 the school won 23 contests in each of the next two years, including going 16-2 in the conference in 1994-95.
In addition to finishing in the top 20 in the final polls in each of his first six seasons with the school, the Panthers won no fewer than 12 games in the Great Lakes Valley Conference in his time as an assistant.
At Kentucky Wesleyan, Harper coached two National Players of the Year, seven All-Americans and nine individuals who earned NABC Great Lakes All-Region honors. Eleven of Harper's players were selected for All-Great Lakes Valley Conference honors, including five who were named the league's player of the year. In postseason play, seven Panthers were voted to the NCAA Division II All-Tournament squad with three selected most outstanding player, while nine earned All-Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament accolades, including four Most Outstanding Player honorees. Off the court, six student-athletes earned academic honors from the conference.
Harper got his start in the coaching profession as a graduate assistant at Virginia Commonwealth during the 1985-86 season.
A 1985 graduate of Kentucky Wesleyan, Harper was a two-year starter for the Panthers after transferring from Texas. He became the school's first All-American as a senior, and he also earned most outstanding player in the regional as well as all-region and all-conference accolades. The 1981 Southwest Conference Rookie of the Year at Texas after averaging 9.8 points and 3.9 assists per outing, Harper finished his college career with 1,187 points and 605 assists at the two schools.
In April of 2010, Harper was named to Kentucky Wesleyan's All-Century Team. One of 30 members selected to the All-Century team, Harper coached 12 of the players, including six of the top 13 vote-getters.
Harper scored 3,033 points during his high school playing career, earning all-state honors as a senior and District Player of the Year acclaim twice. He earned his Master's degree from WKU in 1995.
Harper and his wife, Shannon, reside in Bowling Green, Ky.
The Harper File