Derrick Gordon never expected anything like this.
Western Kentucky’s soft-spoken freshman gave a verbal commitment to play for the Hilltoppers in the fall of 2010, one year after the Tops’ 21-13 season and two years after WKU had made a run to the Sweet 16.
Gordon expected much of the same success his inaugural campaign, but his first year has been “up and down,” he said.
The Tops (11-18) head into the Sun Belt Conference Tournament at 8:30 p.m. Saturday against Florida International.
The 6-foot-3-inch Gordon’s teams lost a total of four games his junior and senior years at St. Patrick High in Plainfield, N.J. When asked how many games he may have lost his whole playing career, he grinned and said, “maybe 10.”
“Yeah, it has (been tough), because it’s like I said before, it was unexpected,” the guard said this week. “I just wasn’t planning on the season going the way it did. I just can’t get down on myself and let my teammates get down on ourselves. We still got the tournament to look forward to and right now it’s win or go home. Every game we got to leave it all out there. We got to take it one game at a time.”
A four-star recruit out of high school, Topper fans have known about the self-titled “Mr. Hilltopper” long before he arrived on the Hill.
He’s been part of an HBO documentary titled “Prayer for a Perfect Season.” He was a teammate of University of Kentucky star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. His prep games were televised and seen by regional and national audiences.
All the while, his twin brother, Darryl, sits in a youth correctional facility on an attempted murder conviction. It’s something Derrick is open about and something he said is constantly on his mind.
“He’s doing real good,” Gordon said of Darryl. “He’s actually going to school, too, and he’s keeping a good head on his shoulders. He’s not fighting, getting in trouble, doing any of that nonsense. Just me hearing his voice, it really lifted a lot off my shoulders because I was always worried about him and how he was doing and things like that. I’m supposed to be getting a call from him sometime this week, right before I leave, so that’ll be good to talk to him before this tournament.”
Earlier this season, Gordon struggled during a four-game stretch. He shot 8 of 36 from the field and was held to single-digit point totals in those games – three of which were losses.
“Every good player goes through their slumps,” fellow freshman T.J. Price said at the time. “We got to keep him up until he gets his game back. Once he does we’re going to be really good again.”
A phone call from his brother also helped Gordon get back on track as well.
“I can’t wait for him to get out so he can finally see me play,” Gordon said. Darryl, who began serving his sentence in 2009, is scheduled to be released in September 2014. “He hasn’t really seen me play – he didn’t see me play at all in high school. He only sees what’s on (ESPN’s) SportsCenter. He’s seen where there were six players on the court (Jan. 5 against Louisiana-Lafayette). He definitely did see that. But he’s never seen me play in person. Just waiting for that moment to come.”
After a season of 18 losses, Gordon said he has also come to grips with defeat and learning how to deal with being on the short end of the stick.
“Things are not always going to go the way you want it to,” he said. “It’s just like, at St. Patrick’s (High), we always won over there. Now, I’m in a different seat and we lost a lot of games. It is something new. In my past experience, I wasn’t on the team that lost a lot. It’s just an adjustment. We’re a young team, we still have a lot to look forward to – we have big futures. It’s just a little bump in the road. I’m not going to let it affect me.”
Gordon is averaging 11.7 points and 6.3 rebounds for the Hilltoppers this season – no freshman has ever led the program in scoring for a single season, as Gordon currently does.
He needs four points to pass Patrick Sparks for fifth on the program’s all-time list for points scored in a season by a freshman. Gordon’s 340 total points is 121 away from Courtney Lee’s freshman record of 461 scored in 2004-05.
For him, that’s still not enough.
“Been frustrated personally with my game because some games I felt I could’ve did a little bit more for us to win,” he said. “It’s just not about one person, it’s about the team. I’m definitely a team player – the team does come first. I’ve just been frustrated overall with our record because I know we could have a better record than we do now. We can’t go back and change that. We just got to move forward.”
Being a part of such a young class does have Gordon hopeful, he said. He compared the Hilltoppers to Virginia Commonwealth and Murray State, saying WKU could be like those programs that have made noise on a national level recently.
He said if the current team sticks with each other – and he plans to be a part of that team – there could be big things in store for WKU.
“I feel I’m happy here right now,” he said. “I have been hearing a couple whispers and there’s rumors that people are wondering what I’m going to do after this year and stuff. You’re going to have that when the head coach (Ken McDonald) gets fired. I’m not going to let that interfere with what I have going for me.”