Michelle Clark-Heard breathed some life into the Western Kentucky women’s basketball program in her first season at the helm.
But what’s she going to do for an encore?
That’s the question many – including Heard and her players – are asking after she led WKU to a 22-11 record and its first postseason win since 2007 this season.
“We’re all ready to get back to the gym and get ready for next season,” sophomore guard Alexis Govan said. “We have the community behind us, and we’ve got people cheering us on, home and away. It’s completely different than last year, and we’re loving it. We’ll keep bringing people out, hopefully, and get them out next year.”
Many things changed in Heard’s first season.
The Lady Tops won 13 more games than 2011-12 – the largest improvement in Sun Belt Conference history – and logged eight more conference victories.
WKU’s home win March 21 over East Carolina in the first round of the Women’s NIT was the program’s first postseason victory since its 2007 WNIT run.
Heard was one of eight first-year women’s coaches, out of 62, to lead his or her team to the NCAA tournament or WNIT this year.
But now things are going to change again.
First, the Lady Tops will play next season with a larger roster. They typically took the court with nine or 10 healthy players this year, and that number could reach 15 in October.
“It’s going to be an adjustment for all those players,” Heard said. “But it’ll be awesome for them because they won’t be in a situation where they feel like they have to play 32 minutes a game. As coaches, if we’ve got kids playing that many minutes, we don’t think we’ve done our job. They won’t have all that pressure like they had this year.”
Most of that pressure fell on Govan and sophomore forward Chastity Gooch, who combined to produce 53 percent of WKU’s scoring, 46.3 percent of its rebounding and 41.5 percent of its steals.
They each averaged more than 34 minutes per game, and guards Bianca McGee and Micah Jones averaged more than 29 minutes.
Heard developed those players enough throughout the process to make the most of her low numbers, Louisville coach Jeff Walz said.
“Michelle’s always been really good on the floor, working with the players, and she’s got a great staff,” said Walz, who was Heard’s boss for five years during her time as an assistant at U of L. “You’ve got to have people you can count on, and you have to have players that will buy in and put the work in. But all of them can see what a little hard work does and take that from someone with a lot of passion.”
Reinforcements are on the way in the 2013 class, including a healthy dose of size. Three of the four signees are 6 feet 2 inches or taller, along with 5-4 guard Kierra Muhammad.
Heard expects Muhammad to “cause chaos” on defense, she said, while 6-1 forward Aleeya Harris will be an athletic rebounder who can run the floor.
6-2 center Bria Gaines and 6-4 center Ruta Savickaite will allow Gooch to play more naturally with her back to the basket, Heard said.
Heard thinks Gaines is the most college-ready recruit at this point, but she said she hopes the others surprise her early in their careers.
“What I hope is that I’m sitting here with you in the first couple weeks after practice saying, ‘I know I said Bria, but we’ve got this kid stepping up and that kid stepping up,’ “ Heard said. “That’s what we need to have.”
The Lady Tops will also return the services of freshman guard Kendall Noble, who tore her right anterior cruciate ligament Dec. 9 at Kent State.
If all continues to go well, Noble could be medically released by June, Heard said.
The team will begin three weeks of individual practice soon. During that period, the staff can work with players for eight hours a week – two hours of basketball instruction and six hours of strength and conditioning.
The coaches will try to tweak some things with the current roster during that time.
They’ll transition freshman forward Jalynn McClain from the power forward spot to a wing position by working on her outside game and ball-handling, Heard said, and they’ll break down freshman guard LeAsia Wright’s shot and work on her form.
Jones, a freshman who filled a vacancy at point guard out of necessity for most of the season, will shift back to her natural shooting guard role.
WKU will have three juniors next season in Govan, Gooch and guard Ileana Johnson, as well as two seniors with McGee and guard Chaney Means. There are no seniors this year.
The Lady Tops have one scholarship available for next season, which Heard says she’ll likely fill this spring with a junior-college perimeter player.
WKU has beefed up its schedule for next season with a home game against Louisville, a road trip to Ole Miss and a game against Michigan State in a tournament in Puerto Rico.
Other confirmed opponents for the nonconference slate are Belmont, Morehead State, Murray State and Northern Kentucky.
The team’s attendance in E.A. Diddle Arena rose by 8 percent this season, from 1,152 fans per game in 2011-12 to 1,247 this year. Its crowd of 2,314 on Feb. 9 against Arkansas State was the largest non-Education Day total since February 2009.
“I feel like we had some crowds that picked up, definitely, from the numbers I saw from last year,” Heard said. “But I also understand what (WKU athletic director) Todd (Stewart) was saying, that people would have to come out and see what the team was about and what the girls were doing.
“I think that with what we showed the fans, I’m hoping we have an improvement. I don’t know how much it’ll be, but I know one thing – we’re going to promote and try to build off that.”
WKU drew 744 fans for its WNIT victory over East Carolina.
Although Diddle Arena’s availability was the main factor in not hosting Auburn in the second round, the first-round attendance was well below the season average and less than the 778 fans Auburn drew in its tourney opener.
Heard was grateful for the fans who attended games this year, she said, and she plans for more in the stands for the second act.
Twenty-eight Division I coaching positions have opened this offseason, but Heard said earlier this month she’s happy on the Hill because “the sky is the limit.”
“You’ve got to prove to people,” she said. “We know where this program was, but it took a lull there for a minute, and we’re working to get it back. One thing I was impressed with, even though we had 700 something, that had to be one of the loudest groups of 700 fans you’re going to see. That was awesome for our players.
“Of course, we’re always going to live off the tradition that we have, but we also have to live in reality. We have to know what’s going on around us and what’s gone on the last couple of years, so we’re trying to live in the present.”