‘Outside Dogs’: No. 2 seed WKU embraces gritty mentality as C-USA Bonus Play begins

WKU’s Jared Savage (2) goes for a lay-up during the men’s basketball game against Southern Miss on Feb. 8, 2020 in Diddle Arena. WKU won 75-72.

Elliott Wells

The WKU men’s basketball team (18-8, 11-3 C-USA) secured the No. 2 seed in Conference USA Bonus Play over the weekend, finishing in the league’s runner-up position after 14 regularly scheduled games for the second consecutive season.

The Hilltoppers met each of the top three scorers in the conference at Texas-El Paso (13-14, 4-10 C-USA) and Texas-San Antonio (12-15, 6-8 C-USA), picking up two crucial road wins against a few of the best individual players the league has to offer this season.

The No. 1 and No. 2 scorers in C-USA are both Roadrunners, as junior guards Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace average 26.9 and 19.0 points per game, respectively. The No. 3 scorer is UTEP forward Bryson Williams, a redshirt junior currently averaging 18.6 points per game.

Williams finished with 13 points, eight rebounds and four assists on Feb. 13, while Jackson and Wallace combined for 52 of the 73 points UTSA scored against WKU on Feb. 15.

Although WKU’s offense has been the key to winning games for most of the season, the Hilltoppers’ defense played a crucial role in securing a successful weekend in Texas. 

“It started with defense,” junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth said. “We just had to get stops and rebound. The main thing we were trying to focus on was them not getting offensive rebounds because that sets up their main scorers.”

Prior to a weekend outing in Texas, the Hilltoppers had been out-rebounded against most C-USA opponents. But WKU won both of its rebounding battles in the Lone Star State, aided by two stellar efforts on the boards from redshirt senior wing Jared Savage.

“We’re not the biggest team,” head coach Rick Stansbury said. “We don’t look like a team when we get off the bus sometimes, but as we’ve said, you can’t underestimate the toughness and the will of this team that we have, and that’s how you win on the road.”

WKU outrebounded UTEP 37-34 and UTSA 42-41, with Savage posting the game-high mark in rebounds on both occasions. Savage grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds against UTSA, showcasing the mentality that helped WKU reach its current four-game winning streak.

“[Jared Savage] kind of nicknamed this team about three weeks ago — he just talked about the dog that we play with,” Stansbury said. “We’ve got some dogs, and that’s something we’ve been talking about. When we say dogs, we don’t mean inside dogs. We mean outside dogs.

“Again, Jared was an example today of what an outside dog is about on the road when you go and get 16 rebounds,” Stansbury continued.

Savage proved himself on the glass over the weekend, but the Bowling Green native has been WKU’s defensive leader for much of the season.

“Jared is a different guy defensively this year,” Stansbury said on Jan. 18. “Jared does so many things for this basketball team. He’s the one guy who really communicates on all of the changes in defense. He’s the one guy that can tell everyone where to go and every set. He knows all their spots, and he has the ability to communicate.”

Savage was rewarded for his efforts by the league office on Monday afternoon, as the redshirt senior was named C-USA Player of the Week for the first time in his career.

WKU will now enter C-USA Bonus Play, the scheduling model that determined the second phase of its conference slate, for the final four games of the regular season.

No. 2 WKU will host No. 4 seed Charlotte (14-11, 8-6 C-USA) at 6 p.m. on Feb. 22 before welcoming No. 3 seed Louisiana Tech (19-7, 10-4 C-USA) at 7 p.m. on Feb. 27.

The Hilltoppers will travel to top-seeded North Texas (18-9, 12-2 C-USA) for a 1 p.m. tipoff in the Super Pit in Denton, Texas, on March 1 before capping C-USA play with a repeat visit to the Ocean Bank Convocation Center in Miami for a 6 p.m. meeting with No. 5 seed Florida International (17-10, 8-6 C-USA) on March 7.

WKU is 3-1 against its remaining opponents, defeating LA Tech 65-54 on Feb. 6, Charlotte 80-63 on Jan. 18 and North Texas 93-84 on Jan. 2. WKU fell 81-76 at FIU on Feb. 1.

The Hilltoppers have already guaranteed they can be seeded no lower than fifth in the upcoming C-USA Tournament, but WKU isn’t looking to become complacent.

“We’ve got some dogs in that locker room, and they have a big heart,” Savage said. “Like coach said, we’re not really intimidating when we’re getting off the bus, but we have some big hearts. We’re going to win a lot of games like that.”

Reporter Elliott Wells can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Elliott on Twitter at @ewells5.