An end to an era: What’s next for the Hilltoppers

Charles Bassey (23) and WKU Senior guard, Taveion Hollingsworth (11) celebrate with a hug after the game against Old Dominion on Saturday, March 6, 2021.

Kaden Gaylord

The 2020-21 WKU men’s basketball (21-8) season has officially reached its end after losing to conference foe Louisiana Tech (23-8) 72-65 in the quarterfinals of the NIT tournament.

“There was a lot of different challenges, same for every team, but when you reflect and look back, there are memories that you’ll never forget about the pain will eventually heal and go away but the memory will be there for the rest of your life,” head coach Rick Stansbury said.

With no more Hilltopper basketball played this season, many questions remain in the offseason.

Will junior Charles Bassey declare for the draft? Will seniors Taveion Hollingsworth and Josh Anderson take the extra year of eligibility given to athletes this year due to COVID-19? Or will they call it a career at WKU and pursue dreams of being professional basketball players?

It was announced Saturday afternoon that sophomore Jordan Rawls will enter the transfer portal, will other players follow his lead?

Who will replace the production of Bassey? Is this the end of an era?

“There were a lot of bright moments, we had a lot of big wins,” Stansbury said. “When they look back and see some of the non-conference wins we had, put ourselves in position to win a regular league championship and have an opportunity in that last game [conference championship] but didn’t take advantage of it.”

Stansbury said there is nothing but pain and hurt right now but there’s a lot of positive things these players can take from this season.

WKU had nothing but high hopes entering this season, with the expected minimum being winning the Conference USA Tournament and a possibility of making a NCAA Tournament run. But for an abundance of reasons, that didn’t happen.

When Stansbury brought in Anderson, Hollingsworth, Bassey and Carson Williams, some tabbed them as the best team Stansbury would ever have on the Hill. This season turned out the same way the previous three seasons ended, with the Hilltoppers losing in a championship game of some sort.

In 2018, WKU lost to Marshall 67-66 after the ball rolled out of the rim. In 2019, WKU lost to Old Dominion 62-56 after being outscored 15-9 in the last four minutes when the game was tied.

In 2020, the Hilltoppers lost 78-72 in overtime in the conference regular-season championship against North Texas.

COVID-19 prevented the rest of that season from being played, but it was still an important game to be won because they would’ve been the No. 1 seed. And of course, this season, again, against North Texas 61-57 in overtime, in the conference championship, after being up by seven points with less than three minutes left in regulation.

This came after WKU won its first regular season championship since joining C-USA, and you could feel the excitement and hope in the area just for it to be shattered the next week.

“I’ll definitely say that regular season championship brought us all together,” Hollingsworth said. “It was good to see everybody happy. That was just a good feeling.”

What made this season extra painful is that the Hilltoppers were in a position to be an at-large bid for the big dance.

Losses to Charlotte, Old Dominion, and the blowout loss to Houston took them out of the running.

The stain of being a turnover heavy team while not being able to make the clutch shot when it mattered shadowed this team like a dark cloud.

This team will always be a fan favorite, and one of the best teams in WKU history, but will forever be plagued by the painful losses in the most important games while never being able to take the next step.

Men’s basketball beat reporter Kaden Gaylord can be reached at [email protected] Follow Kaden on Twitter at @_KLG3