July 21, 2024

After eight extremely successful seasons as men’s basketball head coach at Iowa’s Indian Hills Community College, Hank Plona joined the coaching staff of Western Kentucky University’s new head coach, Steve Lutz, last year. “To me, I was giving up being a head coach,” Plona said Monday. “I was making a decision to get in (NCAA) Division I. … I was like, ‘All right, I am going to change my life.'”

It can be amusing how things play out. Lutz’s name was linked to the head coaching opening at Oklahoma State after he led the Hilltoppers (22-12) to a trip in the 2024 NCAA Tournament, breaking a WKU March Madness drought dating back to 2013.

Plona adds that in the “five or six” days it took the Cowboys and Lutz to reach an agreement, he realized he had a good chance of becoming the head coach at Western Kentucky University. “Obviously, we did make the (NCAA) tournament last year, and I think there was a lot of momentum to try to keep this team together,” Plona said. “A number of individuals encouraged me to get the position. (From that moment on, I chased it with everything I had.”

Todd Stewart, WKU athletics director, compares the decision to keep Plona and elevate him to replace Lutz to his hiring of then-Western football assistant Jeff Brohm to replace Bobby Petrino as Hilltoppers head coach following the 2013 season. Stewart, noting that Brohm went 30-10 and won three bowl games in his three seasons as WKU coach, says, “I hope the outcome turns out to be the same.”

Despite the fact that Plona, 38, won an incredible 86.5 percent of his games (225-35) during his eight seasons as head coach at Indian Hills, Stewart claims he was unfamiliar with the coach until Lutz hired him as an assistant at Bowling Green. “Steve Lutz spoke very highly of Hank Plona all season long,” Stewart informs me. “When Steve and I met to discuss the program, he was always quick to point out, ‘Hank’s doing this. Hank is involved here. And Hank is in charge of this. So I knew Steve thought very highly of him.

 

SLIDE SHOW: Plona named WKU's 17th men's basketball head coach | WKU Sports  | bgdailynews.com

 

“Then I could just see with my own eyes the way Hank interacted with our players and the respect they had for him.”
Plona’s first priority as WKU’s head coach was to retain the nucleus of last season’s Conference USA Tournament title squad intact. It’s a mission that has been mostly completed. Brandon Newman, a veteran guard, followed Lutz to Oklahoma State. Dontaie Allen, an outside shooting specialist and former Kentucky Wildcat, has transferred to Wyoming. However, at least eight more significant Hilltoppers players from last season are returning to WKU.

That features guard Don McHenry (team-high 15.1 points per game previous season), the Conference USA Tournament MVP. Tyrone Marshall (8.8 points per game, 4.5 rebounds) will also return after averaging 21 points, six rebounds, five assists, and two blocks in WKU’s 87-69 loss to Marquette in the NCAA Tournament round of 64. Taegan Moore, a former Owen County High School star, had a great rookie season at WKU (6.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg) last year. Plona hopes the 6-foot-5 sophomore-to-be rediscovers his outside shooting touch during his second year in college. Moore made 41.1 percent of his 3-point attempts as an Owen County senior, but only 21.7 percent for Western in 2023-24.

“We expect him to really shoot it,” Plona says. “I think if Taegan can make 1.5, 2 3’s a game — which he has the ability to do — it will really open up the rest of his game.” Among the newcomers to Western in 2024-25 is hometown prep star Kade Unseld, who was a standout on Warren Central’s 2023 Kentucky boys high school basketball state championship squad. “He wins,” Plona says of the 6-foot-5 Unseld. “He understands what goes into winning. Furthermore, he is an outstanding shooter. That doesn’t hurt either.

One of the highlights of Plona’s first season as WKU coach will come early, when the Hilltoppers travel to Lexington to face Mark Pope’s Kentucky Wildcats. Plona said Western supporters have told him about the 2001-02 game between WKU and UK, when the Hilltoppers defeated the No. 4 Wildcats 64-52 at Rupp Arena, thanks to 13 points and 10 rebounds from 7-footer Chris Marcus.

“I don’t see any negatives,” Plona said of playing in the United Kingdom. “If the negative is that it will be a difficult game, well, good. Our goal in November and December is to prepare ourselves for future improvement. Plona, an Avon, Connecticut native who began his college basketball career as a team manager and later a graduate assistant at Providence College under Tim Welsh and then Keno Davis, recognizes that his first year as a Division I head coach will be a continuity balancing act.

“I’m going to be myself. I am not Stephen Lutz. “He is not me,” Plona declares. “There will be a somewhat distinct voice and personality. At the same time, we did a number of things (last season) that were quite effective. So there is a continuity that we want to continue to establish.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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