Hilltoppers look to build on momentum in first exhibition

Western Kentucky University men’s basketball engages in an in-house scrimmage at EA Diddle Arena October 20 in Bowling Green.

Alec Jessie

WKU basketball wasn’t expected to do much in 2017-18, but after building a mountain of momentum, the Hilltoppers now have expectations to live up to this season.

Coming into the 2017-18 season, head coach Rick Stansbury looked to rebound after an abysmal year one. In his first year as head coach, the Hilltoppers finished with an 18-16 record, putting them in eighth place in the Conference USA standings.

Starting over completely with the 2017-18 group, the Hilltoppers were picked to finish sixth in C-USA heading into the season. WKU returned just one starter from the previous team, senior forward Justin Johnson. Due to the ineligibility of Moustapha Diagne and Josh Anderson, the Hilltoppers started the season with only seven active scholarship players on the roster (in addition to walk-on guard Tyler Miller, who was ineligible for the second semester).

Nonetheless, WKU knocked off a No. 18-ranked Purdue team and Southern Methodist in back-to-back games to go along with a hard fought loss to No. 5 Villanova.

“You know, it started early in the season,” Stansbury said during Friday’s media day. “For that team to go down to the Battle of Atlantis and do what they did against Purdue and Villanova, who we had no idea they’d finish the way they did, those guys deserve a lot of credit for that.”

Once Anderson and Diagne—both returning players for this year—got into the mix, WKU really got rolling. The Hilltoppers rattled off nine wins in 10 games in the middle of the year and then made a run to the C-USA Tournament Championship game.

“As a whole, the way that team finished up … you’re one play away from winning the conference championship,” Stansbury said. “But for those guys to bounce back and win the games they did in the NIT, it’s very impressive.”

This season presents a new challenge for Stansbury and company. Even with the Hilltoppers returning just one year-long starter in sophomore guard Taveion Hollingsworth, they are the preseason pick to win the conference. WKU is pitted against a Marshall team that won an NCAA Tournament game last year, and the Hilltoppers are likely to play a higher level of competition than they have in quite some time with C-USA’s new scheduling format. They will be playing with targets on their backs the entire season.

But Stansbury doesn’t care about the newly-added pressure. He said being picked to win the conference “doesn’t matter at all.”

Between Justin Johnson, Darius Thompson and Dwight Coleby, the Hilltoppers will have to replace 40.4 points and 21.6 rebounds per game. Stansbury said that the lack of experience is the biggest challenge in building off of last season’s momentum.

“Other than Taveion, we’re completely new,” Stansbury said. “That’s the work in progress that we are right now. There’s a lot of new pieces and a lot of moving parts that we’re trying to figure out some things with them too.”

Even through the adjustment process, graduate transfer forward DeSean Murray said he sees a lot of potential in this group.

“I’ve adjusted well,” Murray said. “It’s a great team. I see a lot of talent and I can’t wait to play with this team cause we’re going to have some fun.”

The Hilltoppers look to build on the momentum in Tuesday night’s exhibition game against Campbellsville. WKU beat Campbellsville 92-51 in an exhibition last season. The Tigers are returning their top scorer and rebounder from a season ago in junior forward Andrew Smith, who averaged 14.2 PPG and 9.1 RPG last year. He scored just five points but brought in 11 rebounds against the Hilltoppers. Tip off is set for 7 p.m. in Diddle Arena.  

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