Remember when the Hilltopper men’s basketball squad was going to cruise through Conference USA like a hot knife through butter on its way to being a bracket-busting Cinderella story?
Isn’t going to happen.
It’s not that the Hilltoppers are a bad team, and it’s certainly not for a lack of talent, as head coach Rick Stansbury’s squad has talent coming out its ears. It’s all about the group’s inconsistency.
“We have to figure ways to finish games,” Stansbury said after a recent loss to Florida International. “Winning and losing’s a fine line.”
The Hilltoppers will have to learn how to finish games somewhere. Fortunately for them, a positive role model isn’t far away.
On the other side of WKU’s reversible basketball schedule, the Lady Toppers have played like an absolute force to be reckoned with since the beginning of conference play. When one member of the team has an off night, the rest of them find a way to step up and crush whatever opponent is unlucky enough to be in their way.
A big difference between the two was the weight of preseason expectations. Stansbury’s group was anchored by his long-awaited five-star recruit Charles Bassey, and Taveion Hollingsworth was ready to come back even better than he was in his fantastic freshman season, with the rest of the team looking ready to build off of last year’s NIT run.
On the other side of the coin, the Lady Toppers were coming off of consecutive C-USA championships, but a lot of things had changed. Former head coach Michelle Clark-Heard jumped ship to take a job at Cincinnati, and the team had lost key members to graduation in Tashia and Ivy Brown. Nobody would have been surprised if new head coach Greg Collins and the Lady Toppers had gone through a rebuilding year. So far they haven’t, despite a shaky start in non-conference play, one that can be explained away by the fact they were matching up against some of the blue bloods of women’s basketball such as reigning National Champion Notre Dame. Since C-USA play started, the Lady Toppers are 5-0 compared to the men’s 2-3 record. One of the biggest differences between the two is the way they finish games, something that has perplexed Stansbury, especially recently, with his team blowing several huge leads, including a 21-0 lead at Old Dominion.
“You’ve gotta understand,” Stansbury said. “When you get up in the second half, you’ve gotta put a foot on somebody’s throat.”
The women’s team does just that. While the men’s team has a tendency to hit once and then lose focus, the women knock their opponent out and keep punching until the final buzzer sounds.
“We were pretty solid with our focus,” Collins said after the 30-point victory over Marshall. “What we were doing defensively and for the most part offensively, they brought a real mature approach.”
The players get it. After the loss to FIU, redshirt junior wing Jared Savage made it abundantly clear he knows the underlying issue behind the skid.
“We just lost our focus,” Savage said. “I mean, we’ve done that for three games now. We’ve gotta be better than that. We didn’t finish.”
Hollingsworth had the same line of thinking after the Marshall loss, one that the Hilltoppers let slip away after being up 11 points at the halftime break.
“We kind of relaxed a little bit,” Hollingsworth said. “It really got them going.”
There’s no reason to believe they won’t pull out of this current slump. They’re entering an easier portion of conference play, and the team is simply too talented to not figure this out.
It finally played well enough in the second half on Saturday to get a win against Florida Atlantic, not the best team in C-USA for sure, but still a positive sign, even if it’s hard to trust that it will carry over due to the inconsistencies. Meanwhile, at FAU, the women’s team won 81-50.
WKU fans will hope the men’s team can continue to look across the gym to find some of the consistency and competitive fire it’s missing.
Sports Editor Matt Stahl can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @mattstahl97.