Hilltoppers need to recalibrate following loss

WKU’s Lamonte Bearden (1) sends the ball over UTSA’s Nick Allen (25) from just above the top of the box at E.A. Diddle Arena Jan. 31 in Bowling Green. Bearden scored 22 in the 96-88 OT win.

Alec Jessie

The WKU men’s basketball team is back in a slump after its second straight loss on Saturday against the leaders of Conference USA, Old Dominion.

It has been up and down during conference play for the Hilltoppers. WKU began the C-USA slate horribly, losing three of its first four games even though it had at least a 15-point lead in each defeat.

The tide suddenly turned in favor of the Hilltoppers, as they won eight of their next nine contests. WKU won in a variety of ways, including a shootout against Texas-San Antonio and putting the defensive clamps on North Texas.

However, Alabama-Birmingham put an end to the Hilltoppers’ five-game winning streak with a 68-60 win in Diddle Arena last Saturday. The losing continued in Norfolk, Virginia, when the top two teams in the conference took the court.

“You gotta be really good for 40 minutes on the road,” WKU head coach Rick Stansbury said after Saturday’s loss to ODU. “You can’t get yourself behind at halftime. You leave too many things to chance down the stretch.”

In the midst of the most important stretch of the season, WKU is struggling once again. While many things have hurt the Hilltoppers this season in their defeats, two stats especially stick out.

First, WKU has lost the rebounding margin in three straight games and four out of the last five games. The warning signs were there against Middle Tennessee State. Even in a Hilltopper victory, the Blue Raiders beat WKU on the boards 46-40.

The trend continued in losses to UAB and ODU, where the Hilltoppers were outrebounded by nine and four in the defeats.

Director of basketball operations Talvis Franklin said the Hilltoppers have to give more energy on the boards.

“There’s no secret to rebounding,” Franklin said after the loss to UAB. “That’s effort. We’ve gotta have more people going to that basketball and go to that rim to rebound the basketball.” In some of WKU’s biggest wins in conference play, it held a major advantage in the rebounding margin. In a win against Marshall, the Hilltoppers outrebounded the Thundering Herd 47-28. In an overtime thriller against UTSA, WKU won the margin 48-33.
Secondly, WKU has settled for more jump shots than normal in the past few games. Against UAB, the Hill- toppers struggled shooting the ball. But instead of looking to attack the Blazers from the inside, WKU shot a bunch of 3-pointers. The Hilltoppers made only 6-of-27 from behind the arc in defeat.

Free throw attempts are a good indicator of whether or not the Hilltoppers are doing a good job of getting the ball inside. For the season, WKU averages about 15 free throw attempts per game and shoots 72 percent from the charity stripe. WKU has not met that average in its recent losses. Against UAB, WKU attempted only nine. Even with only 10-of-55 shot attempts coming from behind the arc at ODU, the Hilltoppers could only muster 12 free throw attempts. This also popped up against Middle Tennessee State with the Hilltoppers shooting just 11 free throws in that contest.

WKU consistently is over its average of 15 free throw attempts per game in victories. The Hilltoppers shot 29 in a win over Texas-El Paso. The team also got 17 attempts in against North Texas.

Stansbury acknowledged the Hilltoppers can’t be successful without improvement in these two areas.

“Those are two bad stats you cannot have,” Stansbury said prior to the contest with ODU. “Sometimes you won’t shoot the ball very well. Nobody misses shots on purpose. But you can’t get beat in the rebounding wars and beat on the free throw wars.”

Both of these key stats had been previous strengths that have been turned into weaknesses for WKU. The Hilltoppers must improve upon these statistics if they want to close out the season strong.

Stansbury had been happy with his team’s rebounding and free throw shooting prior to the last few games.

“Those are two areas for the most part we’ve been pretty good at,” Stansbury said before Saturday’s matchup. “Haven’t walked off that court out here very much getting beat rebounding or getting beat in that free throw differential. But the last two games we haven’t done that, we need to get that back.”

The next opportunity to get things right will be on Thursday night when the Hilltoppers will look for revenge against UAB on the road. Tipoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.

Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow Alec on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie.