W. Kentucky thriving under Horn


Before the interview went any further, Anthony Winchester wanted to set a guideline: Ask all the questions you wish about Western Kentucky basketball coach Darrin Horn -- but, please, don't bring up his age.

"It's something that got mentioned a lot last year," said Winchester, the Hilltoppers' standout forward. "But no one really talks about it anymore. It's not an issue."

Indeed, the second-youngest coach in Division I basketball is manning his program with the savvy of the time-tested mentors he credits for getting him here.

Western Kentucky is off to a 6-1 start under Horn, 31, who spent four seasons on Tom Crean's Marquette staff before accepting the head job at his alma mater in April of 2003.

The fact that it's winning isn't what makes Horn's squad unique. Hilltopper fans, after all, expect success from a program whose 38 conference championships ranks third -- behind Kansas and Kentucky -- in NCAA Division I history.

Instead it's how Western Kentucky is topping opponents that's created a buzz in Bowling Green.

"Put it this way," guard Antonio Haynes said. "If I were a fan, I'd love to watch us play."

Horn's predecessor, Dennis Felton, won three consecutive Sun Belt titles thanks to a plodding, high-low attack that centered around behemoth post players such as 7-foot Chris Marcus. Horn's system is the complete opposite.

Attend a game at the E.A. Diddle Arena these days and you're sure to see a squad intent on playing an up-tempo, high-scoring style that's endearing to those in the stands. Dunks, pressure defense, bundles of points in transition. Make no mistake: The Hilltoppers' style has changed.

"The biggest thing," Horn said, "is that we've got the personnel to do it."

Well, kind of. Western Kentucky's start is even more impressive given it happened despite a rash of setbacks that would squelch the moxie of most teams.

The biggest problems have been at the forward position. Forward Josh Higgins (knee surgery) missed the team's first four games and Matt Maresca (wrist) has yet to play. Tennessee transfer Elgrace Wilborn sat out two games with a stomach virus, while highly-touted freshman Mike Walker hasn't been ruled eligible.

All of it has forced Horn to move Winchester, a 6-4 shooting guard, into the paint alongside freshman Boris Siakam, who is originally from Cameroon and is still learning the game after arriving in the United States two years ago.

With Siakam the only true forward, Western Kentucky has four guards in a starting lineup that also features Winchester, Haynes, senior Danny Rumph and freshman Courtney Lee. Still, the Hilltoppers boast a rebounding margin of +1.6 and Winchester -- all 205 pounds of him -- is averaging a team-high 7.9 boards per game.

"He's probably better suited for another position, and we'd probably be better suited with a bigger guy," said Horn, whose team won its first six games before losing at Evansville on Saturday. "But at the same time, he's been finding a way."

Horn pauses.

"When you think about it, that's been the key to our team," he said. "Somehow we've stuck together and found a way to get it done."

At the center of it all is Horn, a former Western Kentucky guard who led the Hilltoppers to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 1993-95. As an assistant at Marquette, Horn was still celebrating the Golden Eagles' Final Four appearance when he was approached about the Western Kentucky job in April 2003.

Although Holy Cross' Ralph Willard seemed like the sentimental choice for the job -- Willard held the Hilltoppers post from 1990-94 -- school officials decided to go with Horn, making him the nation's second youngest coach behind Virginia Commonwealth's Jeff Capel.

Some coaches might look at the Western Kentucky job as a stepping stone. Willard, Felton, Clem Haskins and Gene Keady all parlayed success in Bowling Green into bigger opportunities. Horn, though, has a different view.

A native of nearby Lexington, Horn said coaching at his alma mater ranks near the top of his list of career goals.

"I didn't take this job to get another one," Horn said. "This isn't the normal, first job for a new coach because of what basketball means here, because of the tradition.

"There aren't a lot of first jobs where you can inherit a facility and a tradition like this. Because I went to school here, I understood that more than most would."

Horn was quick to make an impression on his new team, scheduling individual workouts the day after his inaugural press conference. But the transition didn't always go smoothly.

Felton left him with a roster that included 6-11, 320-pound forward Nigel Dixon, a talented transfer from Florida State who was brought in to replace Marcus in Western Kentucky's high-low attack.

Suddenly the up-tempo system Horn wanted to run wasn't as easy to employ. The Hilltoppers lost their first five games, finished 15-13 and failed to earn a postseason berth for the first time in three years.

"Obviously when you've got a kid Nigel's size, you want to use him," Horn said. "He did a lot of good things for us. It's just that he limits what you're going to do."

Frustrated as they were at times, Western Kentucky's players said they could see that things would get better eventually.

"When you start off 0-5, you're going to question anything for a little while," said Winchester, who finished second to Sean May in the Mr. Indiana Basketball voting in 2002. "But after that, we ended up finishing 15-8. We started believing in what coach Horn was trying to do."

It also didn't hurt that Horn was busy on the recruiting trail. In Wilborn, Horn found a player who blocked nearly two shots a game as a sophomore at Tennessee. He landed a point guard in Haynes who averaged 14.6 assists in junior college. Lee, however, is Horn's most-coveted signee to date.

An Indianapolis native, Lee ranks third on the team in scoring at 14.1 points per game. While the trend in college basketball seems to be to dunk or shoot three-pointers, Lee is finding success with a silky mid-range game that gives opponents fits. Lee's scoring numbers also are aided by that fact the he's playing 32.6 minutes a game.

Horn plucked Lee out of tradition-rich Pike High School -- the alma mater of Notre Dame guard Chris Thomas -- where he went 72-8 in four years. He said he was fortunate to find Lee before some of the country's bigger schools came calling.

"Courtney played for a great high school and a great coach, so he came in with the perfect attitude," Horn said. "He didn't come in thinking, 'I'm the man.' We committed to him very early on. We told him he was the guy we wanted, and that he could make an impact right away. Those things are coming true for him."

Horn realizes a lot of things need to happen for Western Kentucky's success to continue. The Hilltoppers must get healthy in the paint, and their defensive intensity -- opponents are averaging 19.9 turnovers a game -- must continue.

"When three of your top seven players are freshmen, it's a little early to gauge where you're going to be long term," Horn said. "We're playing with heart and emotion. But with our depleted roster situation and lack of experience, each game is going to present a different challenge."

Still, there's something special about this squad, Horn said, something that makes him think the Hilltoppers could very well surpass their predicted fourth-place finish in the Sun Belt's East Division. He said it's about attitude, about sharing the ball on offense and fighting like heck for it on defense. It's about the way his players cheer for each other on the court and socialize off of it.

It's about being a family.

"That's the perfect word to describe us -- family," said Haynes, whose averaging a team-high 17.9 points a game. "Each day in the locker room we pass a sign that says, 'Play for each other.' And that's what we do. We've got a good chance to prove a lot of people wrong."

Jason King of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.