WKU heads to Myrtle Beach with room to improve

WKU center Charles Bassey (23) fights for a rebound against UT Martin at Diddle Arena on November 10, 2018. Bassey tallied 15 points in the Hilltoppers’ 86-71 win.

Alec Jessie

A WKU men’s basketball team with high expectations has certainly shown potential through two regular season games, but the Hilltoppers are also showing they have room to improve as they get ready to take on tough competition at the Myrtle Beach Invitational. 

After surrendering its first half lead and falling to 25th-ranked Washington, WKU got its first win of the season against UT Martin Saturday. The Hilltoppers showed an improved second-half effort and looked more cohesive at full strength after getting all their players back from suspension. 

“We’ve made some inroads,” Stansbury said. “But we’re not where I’d like for us to be. We’ve got to work everyday in practice. We’re going to keep getting better everyday.”

WKU’s post players have been good for Stansbury in the early stages of the season. Including exhibition games, freshman Charles Bassey registered a double-double his first three games as the team’s starting center. Even in a tough matchup with Washington senior Noah Dickerson, Bassey scored 11 and grabbed 12 rebounds. Bassey has also made his impact felt on the defensive end with six blocks in the first couple regular season games. The freshman phenom even dished a couple of assists in Saturday’s win. For that effort, he was named the Conference USA Freshman of the Week to open the year. 

Stansbury said he is pleased with his star big man but acknowledged he needs to improve.

“He was good,” Stansbury said after Saturday’s win. “Lot of areas he’s got to get better at. Defensively he’s got to get better. He’s a very good passer, a willing passer. He’s going to keep getting better.”

Bassey is not the only freshman post player making early strides. Now fully recovered from his foot injury, Tolu Smith has emerged as a key reserve Stansbury can turn to on the bench. Smith only played five minutes against the Huskies but broke out against UTM. In 12 minutes, Smith scored six points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked a shot. 

With Smith healthy, Stansbury sees his potential and how he can best contribute to the team.

“I have a lot of confidence in him,” Stansbury said. “Thursday and Friday were his first full practices this fall. It showed in his play. I’m talking about Galen Smith. He’s a guy I know can really add too. I’d like to get to a point to where we can throw him and Charles out there together some.”

Stansbury also liked what Matt Horton did on Saturday, with two points and three rebounds in just five minutes. 

“There’s another guy that comes off of that bench,” Stansbury said. “Everytime he comes in, he adds something. That’s Horton. I like that. He plays with emotion.”

Point guard play and second half performances will have to be the top issues Stansbury addresses heading into the Myrtle Beach Invitational. Second half play was a problem even before the regular season started. In the second half of WKU’s final exhibition game, the Hilltoppers allowed Division II Kentucky Wesleyan to match its scoring output of 41. Stansbury was clearly frustrated with his team’s second half after the game. 

It carried over to the season opener. WKU lead the Huskies 36-27 at the half, only to allow 12 straight coming out of halftime. The Hilltoppers never managed a healthy lead again and the Huskies outscored the Hilltoppers 46-19 in the half. WKU did make progress against UTM, however. Sophomore guard Taveion Hollingsworth and graduate transfer forward Desean Murray sparked a second half run that put the game out of reach, and WKU outscored UTM 39-34 in the half. 

Point guard play has also been an issue for the Hilltoppers. Sophomore Josh Anderson has been entrusted with the lead guard role since the graduation of Darius Thompson. The early returns haven’t been great. Anderson was held scoreless at UW and had only one assist and four turnovers. He played better against UTM, with seven points and three assists, but Stansbury said he expects better. Freshman point guard Dalano Banton has not scored yet this season and only has four assists despite playing 28 minutes. 

Stansbury wants more out of Anderson going forward.

“Maybe I expect too much out of Josh,” Stansbury said. “That’s where I’m at with him. I expect a whole lot more. It’s not where it needs to be. As a point guard, Josh needs to get some enthusiasm and energy about him other than scoring.”

The Hilltoppers face a tough test in their opening game of the Myrtle Beach Invitational. Valparaiso scored 121 points in its season opening win against Concordia-Chicago. 

If WKU wins that matchup, the Hilltoppers will play the winner of West Virginia and Monmouth. West Virginia lost to Buffalo on Friday, but the Bison have NBA talent and an experienced team that has played in the NCAA Tournament. West Virginia’s up-tempo style of play and full court press will be a real challenge for the struggling point guards. Regardless of the opponents, three games in four days will be a challenge on this inexperienced group.

WKU will square off with Valparaiso at 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon. The game will be available on ESPNU.

 

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