Stansbury, Hilltoppers make great strides in second season

Head coach Rick Stansbury yells to his players during the Hilltoppers semifinal game of the Conference USA tournament against Old Dominion University on Friday March 9, 2018 at The Star in Frisco, Tx.

Jeremy Chisenhall

Night and Day

What a difference a year makes.

On March 8, 2017, Rick Stansbury’s first season as head coach of WKU basketball came to a disappointing end. A loss to Texas-San Antonio in the first round of the Conference USA Tournament sent WKU packing with a 15-17 record.

Things were bad for a Hilltopper team with a losing record, and they weren’t looking up. Stansbury was set to return just one player in a major role to this year’s team in forward Justin Johnson. It only got worse in the offseason as the crown jewel of Stansbury’s 2017 recruiting class, five-star big man Mitchell Robinson, decommitted and left WKU, re-enrolled in August, and then left again. In addition, JUCO transfer guard Jordan Brangers failed to meet NCAA transfer requirements, and three-star center Robinson Idehen failed to enroll in time to play this season.

Misfortune stuck another blow when freshman guard Josh Anderson and redshirt sophomore forward Moustapha Diagne were ruled ineligible by the NCAA at the start of the season. The roster shrunk yet again at the start of the second semester when walk-on guard Tyler Miller was ruled academically ineligible.

Stansbury entered the 2017-18 season with eight players. Only two of them were returning players and only one of those was on scholarship. With that in mind, the C-USA preseason poll picked the Hilltoppers to finish sixth in the conference standings.

Despite the low expectations from the outside, hopes were high within the program.

“My main goal is to try to win a ring this year,” Johnson said during media day before the season. “That’s the one thing I don’t have here. If I do that then my career will be set here because that’s all I care about at this point, is a ring.”

Stansbury felt the same way, saying that he’d only accept a conference championship drive.

“I say this all the time, if it’s not a championship effort, it’s not good enough,” Stansbury said. “We won’t let any type of things that’s happened be a distraction. Won’t be a reason for us not to compete for a championship. ”

The Hilltoppers had to simply survive the early part of the season as the team developed chemistry and dealt with a severely depleted bench. With just eight players, WKU managed to go 10-5 in its first 15 games, which included upset wins over Southern Methodist University and then-number 18 ranked Purdue University. One of the Hilltoppers’ five losses came at the hands of then-number five ranked Villanova University.

With a lack of depth and returning players, WKU was helped greatly by graduate transfers. Forward Dwight Coleby from University of Kansas and guard Darius Thompson from University of Virginia were both fifth-year players who transferred to WKU for their final year of eligibility.

Thompson ended the season as the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.6 points per game. He was also the team’s leading passer, as he averaged 4.8 assists per game. He recorded the second triple-double in program history on Jan. 6, scoring 33 points, dishing 10 assists and grabbing 10 rebounds.

Coleby was the team’s second-leading rebounder, as he averaged eight rebounds per game. He also led the team in field goal percentage, as he shot 59.8 percent, and blocked shots, as he had 66 rejections.

Finally in early January, WKU was able to play Anderson and Diagne, as they were each declared eligible. The Hilltoppers were up to 10 players, and they began to roll at “full” strength.

With Anderson eligible for the first game of January and Diagne eligible on Jan. 11, WKU went 8-2 in its first 10 games of 2018. The Hilltoppers also put together a six-game win streak, and entered the final week of the season with a shot to win a share of the C-USA regular season title.

Along with the mid-season success came more attention for the program. Diddle Arena saw an uptick of over 1,500 additional people for WKU’s home games, as the Hilltoppers had an average attendance of 5,487. Last year, there was an average of only 3,915 in attendance. The Hilltoppers also played in front of three beyond-capacity home crowds this season. That’s the most in a season since 2006.

But the hot streak ended, and the Hilltoppers lost their last two games of the season. They entered the C-USA Tournament as the three seed, and then got hot again. Exactly one year after the conclusion of a 15-17 season, WKU beat Alabama-Birmingham by 28 points in the second round of the conference tournament. It had been just five days since WKU lost to the same team by the same margin. The Hilltoppers then knocked off Old Dominion by eight points and put themselves just one win away from an NCAA Tournament bid.

But Marshall cut the Hilltoppers short of the big dance. The Thundering Herd defeated WKU 67-66 in a game that went down to the final seconds, as a go-ahead layup attempt by junior guard Lamonte Bearden missed by a matter of inches.

The Hilltoppers had fallen short of the NCAA Tournament, but their surprisingly successful season was far from over. WKU received an NIT invite, and embraced the postseason competition on the NCAA’s second-biggest stage.

WKU made a run all the way to the NIT semifinal, defeating Boston College 79-62 in the first round, Southern California 79-75 in the second round and Oklahoma State 92-84 in the quarterfinal. After missing the tournament, Stansbury said he preferred to have the chance at the run his team was on at the time.

“I said this before, I’ll say it again publicly,” Stansbury said prior to the NIT semifinal. “I’d much rather go win three games in the NIT and get to New York City rather than play one game in the NCAA Tournament and get beat. I’ll stand by that statement.”

The three-game run earned the Hilltoppers a trip to New York City to play in Madison Square Garden against the University of Utah. Leading by one with 40 seconds left, WKU ended up suffering another heartbreaking defeat. The Utes ended the game on a 6-0 run to advance to the NIT championship round.

Aside from a few heartbreaking losses, Stansbury’s turnaround couldn’t have been better. WKU recorded 12 more wins than it did a season ago and posted a winning record on the road after going just 4-12 in away games last year.

As Stansbury moves on from an improved second year, the groundwork is laid for further success. That’s thanks in no small part to Taveion Hollingsworth, the guard who set WKU’s freshman scoring record this season with 506 points. He was the first freshman in program history to score 500 points, and he’ll be the team’s leading returning scorer next year.

In contrast to last season, Stansbury will have six returning players next year: Hollingsworth, Bearden, Diagne, Anderson, freshman forward Marek Nelson and freshman guard Jake Ohmer. He’ll also add on Jared Savage and Jalen Baker, transfer students who had to sit out this year, and his 2018 recruiting class, which currently features five signees.