Hilltoppers hitting stride, looking to avoid lapses

WKU guard Darius Thompson (15) attacks the basket for a layup during WKU’s game vs. Nicholls State on Nov 19 in E.A. Diddle Arena. WKU won 100-86.

Jeremy Chisenhall

WKU has gathered a lot of momentum early in the season, as the Hilltoppers have beaten a ranked Purdue team and a highly-touted Southern Methodist team just six games into the season.

After hitting an extreme high this early, the Hilltoppers are trying to avoid having an up-and-down year.

“Coach always says ‘peaks and valleys,'” senior forward Justin Johnson said. “You can’t get high and you can’t get too low. If you’re going to be really successful you have to kind of flat-line.”

The Hilltoppers don’t have a shortage of tough opponents on their schedule. Their strength of schedule is ranked sixth in the nation by Ken Pomeroy, with opponents like Wisconsin, Ohio and Belmont still remaining in non-conference play.

“The biggest game of the year is which one? Always the next one,” head coach Rick Stansbury said. “That’s the mentality you have to keep in your players. You can’t get on the mountain, you can’t get in the valley. You’ve got to stay on that even keel the best you can. It’s easier said than done through a haul of 30 games.”

Even with the team already on a high note, they’re still developing. The team’s shallow eight-man rotation features three freshmen, and they’re not even one-third of the way through the season.

That rotation also features junior guard Lamonte Bearden, who hadn’t played in over a year, and was thrust into action this year without a lot of practice due to an injury. Stansbury has taken notice of Bearden’s development through six games, as the former Buffalo standout gets back to form.

“The first couple games, when I watched Bearden play, that wasn’t the guy I knew,” Stansbury said. “I understood he hadn’t played for, whatever it’s been, a year and a half. I thought he was pressing a little bit early. I do think he played himself into a little bit of a rhythm those last three games in the Bahamas. I thought he got more comfortable as we went on. The first day I thought he may have rushed a little bit too much at times, but I thought he settled in as the tournament went on … and still I don’t think we’ve seen some of the things he does best. “

Bearden is best at driving the lane and passing out and has been looking more to drive the lane and score early on this year, Stansbury said. He also said that Bearden defended very well off the dribble in the Bahamas.

Stansbury has also been impressed with the development of freshman guard Jake Ohmer. Ohmer was the star of the Battle 4 Atlantis for WKU, putting up 15 points against No. 18 Purdue and hitting a game-winning 3-pointer against SMU. He was slighted coming into college because of his height (6-1) and the fact that many saw him as a defensive liability. But Stansbury has never had doubts about Ohmer’s abilities.

“Not one time did he ever makes us question, ‘was he going to be good enough,’ or ‘can he do this well enough.’ Not one time,” Stansbury said. “We always left that floor maybe seeing him do some things that we hadn’t seen him do.”

Stansbury said that Ohmer has also come a long way defensively.

“I think we all would agree from where he’s come from the first day to where he’s at now defensively, he’s come miles,” Stansbury said. “I’ve gained a lot of confidence in him. I’m still hoarse from back early in the season because of Jake, and Jake knows that, but he’s responded to it. He’s responded to coaching, he’s responded to some vinegar. He’s handled it. He’s gotten better from it. And I think he’s probably exceeded everybody’s expectations, and I would say if you ask him probably him too.”

WKU will attempt to continue working towards that even-keel season against Wright State on Saturday. At the time of publication, WKU had not yet played its game against EKU on Wednesday. WSU is 4-3 on the year and coming off a narrow 57-56 win over Fairfield in the Wright State Tournament.

WSU is led by senior guard Grant Benzinger, who’s averaging a team-high 13 points per game. Redshirt freshman center Loudon Love leads the team in rebounds per game with 8.7 and senior guard Justin Mitchell leads the team in assists with 3.5 per game.

The Hilltoppers will host WSU at 4 p.m. on Saturday in Diddle Arena. 

Reporter Jeremy Chisenhall can be reached at 859-760-0198 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @JSChisenhall.