JIM MASHEK COLUMN/Steve Lutz negotiates peaks and valleys, delivers in first season as WKU head basketball coach


There was no shortage of ebb and flow. Plenty of peaks, and voluminous valleys over the last 4.5 months, a team that evolved under Steve Lutz, Western Kentucky University’s first-year men’s basketball coach.

There were victories over traditional rivals such as usually stout Murray State, Atlantic Sun regular-season champion Eastern Kentucky and nearby Austin Peay State University.

There were winning streaks, before WKU’s first game in a reconfigured Conference USA, and gut-wrenching losses, largely on the road against C-USA opponents.

There were a couple devastating injuries, first to defensive specialist Jalen Jackson, and then versatile point guard Khristian Lander, one of the four holdovers from Rick Stansbury’s final WKU squad.

And there were moments. Big moments. Memorable moments. And for a few days in Huntsville, Alabama, a feeling that the Hilltoppers were finally ready to negotiate one of the biggest obstacles to the program over the last decade and change.

The Tops took Huntsville by storm, whipping New Mexico State and traditional rival Middle Tennessee State on their way to the Conference USA Tournament championship game. Then, with the promised land beckoning in the distance, Lutz’s WKU squad got after it when it really counted.

I was operating on limited sleep that night, having covered the Bowling Green High School girls basketball team for three days in the Sweet 16 in Lexington, but I had to get to Huntsville, for the showdown against the University of Texas-El Paso, a program that like WKU knows a thing or two about maintaining a tradition of excellence.

Not to mention that pursuit, when it fades.

You had to like the Hilltoppers’ chances in that game, and they bolted to a quick 17-3 lead before the Miners settled in, making it a competitive contest on multiple fronts. In fact, in the second half, Western Kentucky trailed by as many as seven points. UTEP was nobody’s pushover, but Don McHenry and the Tops were not going to be denied that night at Huntsville’s Propst Arena.

Western Kentucky held on for a 78-71 victory over the Miners, with McHenry scoring 25 points to earn tournament MVP honors. It was a tough, talented team that Steve Lutz and his WKU coaching staff put together in a matter of weeks, using the NCAA Transfer Portal and the NIL regulations to their advantage.

And it remains the new frontier, for all of college basketball — the blue bloods, the promising mid-major squads, pretty much everybody.

Lutz understands.

The well traveled, measured Lutz used back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi to land the WKU job about one year ago, and he realized the Hilltoppers’ faithful were starved for a winning team. A restored winning tradition.

Most of all, a long-awaited berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Anything after that was pretty much gravy.

Lutz and his Hilltoppers squad convened at WKU’s E.A. Diddle Arena for the NCAA Selection Show just one week ago, drawing a pretty fair crowd to find out the Tops’ fate in the tournament.

Western drew a favorable destination, the Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, as a No. 15 seed in the NCAA’s South Regional. If the Hilltoppers had had single-digit losses, definitely a possibility before a four-game losing streak to close regular-season play, they could have been looking at a No. 12 or No. 13 seed.

And we all know how that No. 13 seed that drew the University of Kentucky in first-round play, the upstart Oakland University Golden Grizzlies of Oakland, Michigan, did under the bright lights in Pittsburgh. Jack Gohlke, a 24-year-old shooting guard playing his first season of NCAA Division I basketball, hit 10 shots from 3-point range, sending Oakland to a dramatic, 80-76 victory over the woebegone Wildcats.

The next day, WKU took the floor against the second-seeded Marquette Golden Eagles, a team with some unknowns, particularly star guard Tyler Kolek returning from an oblique injury after a five-game absence. (That muscle affects just about anything you do, as far as exerting your body in athletic competition.)

And wouldn’t you know it, the Hilltoppers got a case of Bracket Buster Fever their own selves.

Marquette bolted to an early lead, but the Hilltoppers clearly were not intimidated. Not by the stakes, not by the surroundings, certainly not by the Golden Eagles themselves. And then Tyrone Marshall got hot.

Western Kentucky was getting up and down the court, playing with nothing to lose. Marshall and WKU teammate Dontaie Allen hit some open 3-pointers. The Tops were limiting Marquette to one shot and doing a good job at attacking the Golden Eagles’ defense. They took a 43-36 lead into the locker room at halftime, and eyebrows across the country were raised in the HIlltoppers’ direction.

They certainly had a chance.

And it came and went, in a flash.

Marquette settled down in the opening moments of the second half. The Golden Eagles moved in front, 53-48, on David Joplin’s 3-pointer with 14:35 left in the game. WKU’s Don McHenry, playing against a school from his hometown, Milwaukee, would tie things up at 55 on a 3-point field goal of his own, but things went pretty much due south for the Tops from there.

Marquette shot 55 percent from the second half, including an 8-for-17 effort (47 percent) in the second half, while the Hilltoppers hit one of three field-goal attempts (33 percent) while going 2-for-12 from beyond the arc.

That’s 17 percent.

And that isn’t going to beat a No. 2 seed.

All of the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 and No. 2 seeds survived the first weekend, a rarity that became a reality when the University of Houston survived an overtime scare from Texas A&M.

WKU finished its first season under Steve Lutz with a respectable 22-12 record, and the Hilltoppers will be a team to watch in 2024-25. After going 11 years without an NCAA Tournament appearance, Lutz made it happen in his first opportunity.

There will be significant changes to the roster, of course, but I would think a lot of the Hilltoppers’ players can see the promise this team has for the future. Conference USA ain’t what it used to be, unfortunately, but that’s the hand Lutz and the Tops have been dealt.

I’d expect a much tougher schedule in Year Two, for WKU, and I’d expect plenty of improvement, too.

WKU fans turned out strong for the Hilltoppers’ championship game against UTEP in the C-USA Tournament. Lutz is going to emphasize the need for better game-to-game attendance for the Tops next season, and I believe they’ve got a shot to make that happen.

Don McHenry is expected to return for his senior year at WKU, but the Tops will miss the likes of Rodney Howard, Brandon Newman and Khristian Lander. Teagan Moore showed significant improvement in the second half of his freshman year with the Tops, and WKU teammate Jack Edelen has emerged as a capable backup point guard.

Lutz’s family has remained behind, in Corpus Christi, Texas, while one of his daughters finishes her senior year in high school. Lutz’s son, Jackson, was on the bench as a WKU ball boy for postseason play, and Lutz said it’s been difficult, making things work in different locales.

That will all change in 2024-25.

Change has become the buzzword for pretty much all of college basketball, and Lutz seems like a flexible sort, ready to do what he has to do to stabilize things for the long term. Warren Central High School star Kade Unseld is on his way to WKU, and there will be other critical additions, too.

My guess is the Hilltoppers will be poised to continue the upward trend. Getting to the NCAA Tournament is always a good place to start.