‘You don’t replace him’: Jared Savage, Carson Williams help fill frontcourt void after Charles Bassey’s injury

WKU center Charles Bassey (23) goes down after sustaining a leg injury in the second half. The Hilltoppers defeated the Razorbacks 86 – 79 in Diddle Arena on Saturday, December 7, 2019.

Evan Culbertson

The WKU men’s basketball team began its 2019-20 campaign with lofty expectations, due in large part to sophomore center Charles Bassey’s unexpected return to the Hill.

The former five-star recruit was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder during the 2018-19 season, averaging a double-double and helping guide the Hilltoppers to a 20-win campaign.

After the potential NBA Draft pick announced his intent to play another season in a Hilltopper uniform — and WKU revamped its roster with the addition of several transfer players — Mid-Major Madness’ Kyle Cajero described WKU as “loaded on paper” in a July 2019 article.

Many pundits crowned WKU as the preseason favorite to win a Conference USA championship, and the 14 C-USA head coaches voted WKU as the preseason No. 1 team in the league.

The team was solid out of the gates, posting its most wins in November since the 2006-07 season before a marquee win against previously unbeaten Arkansas in overtime on Dec. 7.

Bassey had lived up to his hype through nine games, averaging 15.9 points and 9.6 rebounds per contest, and he’d already collected 10 points and six rebounds before suffering a left knee injury late in the second half against the Razorbacks.

The program confirmed two days later that the Lagos, Nigeria, native would require surgery to repair a tibial plateau fracture, ending his sophomore season after just 10 games played.

With Bassey out for the season, WKU’s hopes of an NCAA Tournament berth became murkier, and it wasn’t immediately clear who would be asked to fill Bassey’s frontcourt role.

Despite several early-season setbacks — including the NCAA ruling Lipscomb transfer Kenny Cooper ineligible just days after Bassey’s injury — WKU has battled its way to a 19-10 record and currently sits tied for second place in C-USA with only one regular season game left.

During a media availability one day before the Hilltoppers’ exhibition game against Kentucky Wesleyan on Dec. 17, which was the team’s first outing without Bassey, head coach Rick Stansbury foreshadowed the new style of play his team would soon need to adopt.

“Charles meant a lot to this basketball team,” Stansbury said. “You don’t replace him. You don’t replace what he brought to the team. So, what we have to do is figure out ways to do it differently.”

As the C-USA Tournament picture comes into focus for WKU, fears of an inconsistent frontcourt without Bassey are all but forgotten, with an unlikely group of players combining to take over his role and keep WKU’s dreams of going dancing alive with March Madness just around the corner.

Many players on the team have increased their rebounding and interior defense to supplement Bassey’s absence, but none have stepped up more than a pair of 6-foot-5-inch forwards: redshirt senior Jared Savage and redshirt junior Carson Williams.

Savage has led the Hilltoppers on the glass this season, averaging 7.2 rebounds per game.

The Bowling Green native’s willingness to fill Bassey’s role has been an important factor in keeping the team afloat, and his increased contributions on the boards become even more apparent when comparing his averages before and after Bassey’s injury.

Through the first 10 games of the 2019-20 season, Savage averaged 5.1 rebounds per outing and provided a solid supplement to Bassey’s post prowess.

Savage was quickly thrust into a leading role following the Arkansas game, and he delivered, posting his first double-digit rebounding game of 2019 in WKU’s first regular season outing after Bassey’s injury, an 86-82 overtime loss at Rhode Island on Dec. 21.

Savage spoke about the mentality he and the team needed to embrace without Bassey on Dec. 16.

“Nothing for us changes,” Savage said. “It’s a big blow to us, but our goals are still the same. We still want to accomplish the things that we said we wanted to at the beginning of the year. It’s a next-man-up mentality. We’ve still got a season to play.”

The wing has continued posting stellar production, averaging 8.3 rebounds in the team’s last 19 games, including a dominant 16-rebound performance against Texas-San Antonio on Feb. 15. 

Savage is ranked No. 5 in C-USA in rebounding average, and he ranks No. 3 in the conference in defensive rebounds per game.

Rebounding isn’t the only section of the stat sheet Savage has been filling for WKU.

He’s tied with junior guard Josh Anderson for the team lead in blocks, is the team’s leading shooter from behind the three-point line and is among the top three players on the team in steals, points per game, free-throw percentage and minutes played per game.

Savage has already surpassed his block and steal totals from the 2018-19 season, and his 31 blocks are more than double the 14 he posted as a redshirt junior a year ago.

Speaking to the media on Thursday, Savage gave insight into why he’s raised his level of play recently and also how he plans to continue raising it as the C-USA Tournament approaches. 

“I’ve got two more guaranteed games in my college career — I’m playing for everything,” Savage said. “I’m going to play my heart out. I don’t care if I’m playing in [Preston Center], I’m going to give it my all. We learned with Charles, it can be taken from you any day, so I’m going to give it my all.”

Williams hinted at the role he would eventually find himself thriving in by the end of the regular season during a media availability on Dec. 16.

“I’m definitely going to have to step up in certain areas — rebounding especially, guarding other five-men,” Williams said. “That might be a challenge, but it’s something I’m ready for.”

Williams has backed up his statement in the latter half of the season, helping to define the Hilltoppers’ new brand of positionless basketball.

In his first season playing for the Hilltoppers, Williams has produced 13.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, putting him at No. 2 on the team in both categories. 

Williams played two years at NKU before transferring to WKU. A starter both seasons in Highland Heights, he earned Horizon League All-Freshman Team honors and helped lead the Norse to a conference title and NCAA Tournament bid during the 2016-17 season.

Although he played significant minutes during his time at NKU, the Owenton native’s debut season on the Hill has produced the best scoring and rebounding averages of his college career. 

The offensive glass has become an area where Williams excels for WKU, as he’s pulled in 67 offensive rebounds so far. WKU’s next leading offensive rebounder is Savage with 39.

Williams’ current offensive rebound total would’ve placed him at No. 2 on the team last season, trailing only Bassey’s eye-popping 99 offensive boards.

Williams is ranked No. 10 in C-USA in total rebounds per game, and his ranking rises to No. 7 when looking at offensive rebounds per game.

Savage and Williams have fully stepped into their expanded frontcourt roles, but their increased contributions have been supplemented by Anderson and junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth.

The backcourt duo is averaging 4.2 and 4.1 rebounds per game, respectively. They’ve also been tone-setters on the defensive end, where Anderson is tied for the team lead in blocks with 31. His 36 steals are second only to Hollingsworth’s team-leading 39 takeaways.

In the Feb. 27 episode of the WKU Sports “Hilltopper Spotlight” series on YouTube, Savage encapsulated what WKU’s performance without Bassey means for this year’s team.

“It just shows our heart and our togetherness,” Savage said. “We could’ve dropped our heads and just gave up. I mean, [Bassey’s injury] was before conference play even started. But I think we’ve strung it together and come together and bonded as a team.”

WKU’s new approach was unconventional, but Stansbury’s frontcourt adjustment turned out to be what kept the Hilltoppers alive during a season full of uncertainty. During a media availability on Thursday, Williams summed up why the 2019-20 Hilltoppers are still a team to watch out for in March.

“I’m a competitor,” Williams said. “We’ve got other competitors in our locker room. So, you can bet we’re going to come out and play hard, regardless of what the circumstances are.”

Reporter Evan Culbertson can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Evan on Twitter at @evan_culbertson.