The disappointment of Western Kentucky's men's basketball program failing to reach the NCAA Tournament since 2013 has become palpable for Hilltopper fans -- and with good reason.
This is the longest stretch in the modern era that WKU has come up dry in terms of reaching the Big Dance.
Moreover, it took near-miraculous four-wins-in four-days runs through the Sun Belt Conference Tournament by former head coach Ray Harper in 2012 and 2013, or this streak would stretch back to (gulp!) 2009, when the Hilltoppers defeated Illinois in the first round before losing by two to No. 10 Gonzaga in Ken McDonald's first season at the helm.
Greatness on the hardwood, then, has eluded the Hilltoppers for some time now.
Fortunes could begin to change for Western, however, beginning this season. Obviously, the return of former 5-star recruit Charles Bassey, a 6-foot-11 sophomore center, is a huge boon to the program, but perhaps equally important will be the addition of 4-star guard Jordan Rawls, originally a member of the Class of 2020 who will reclassify and join the Hilltopper program immediately.
Rawls is a difference-maker to be sure, and only time will tell whether or not he can be a program-changer -- but the possibilities are tantalizing.
Last season, the 6-2 Rawls averaged 23 points and seven assists per game for Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He led the Hawks to the National Association of Christian Athletics Division 1 national championship and a 34-4 record. It was the program's third such title in four seasons.
Rawls scored 22 points in the championship game, in addition to another game where he drilled nine 3-pointers and scored a career-high 38 points.
Rawls is rated a 4-star prospect by both 247Sports and Rivals, and 247Sports ranked him the No. 80 player in the nation in the 2020 class.
This spring, Rawls averaged 11.9 points per game on the AAU circuit for Team Thad, shooting 48% from the floor and making 35% of his 3-point attempts.
Rawls may be the explosive perimeter force WKU so desperately needs to balance the interior talents of Bassey, who was often double- and triple-teamed last season as a freshman due to the Hilltoppers' relative inefficiency from the outside. Rawls' presence could loosen things up inside, considerably.
Even if he can be consistent in delivering simple entry passes to Bassey on the interior, his presence will be a welcome addition to the program.
He could be the missing piece to a confounding puzzle that has left coach Rick Stansbury's team short of the NCAA Tournament by a single victory the past two seasons.
In 2017-18, the Toppers dropped a heartbreaking 67-66 decision to Jon Elmore-led Marshall in the Conference USA championship game. WKU made the most of its NIT experience, posting victories over Boston College, Southern California and Oklahoma State to reach the semifinals in Madison Square Garden. The Tops finished 27-11.
A nice run, to be sure, but it wasn't the NCAA Tournament.
This past season, WKU took fans on an exhaustive roller-coaster ride throughout the regular season, before again reaching the C-USA Tournament championship game -- falling to Old Dominion in a poorly played finale.
And, WKU did not participate in any postseason tournament.
Now, a hard-crusted fan base that rightly expects more from a program that has reached the NCAA Tournament 22 times since 1960 anxiously anticipates the 2019-20 season. In their minds, falling short again just won't cut it.
So, will this be the season for the Hilltoppers to finally break through?
It's too early to know, of course, but the addition of Jordan Rawls can't hurt -- and it may, in fact, help the cause considerably. He could turn out to be the missing link.