The Walkthrough: This is not your father’s WKU basketball team

Evan Heichelbech is the College Heights Herald Editor-in-Chief for Fall 2018 and Spring 2019.

Evan Heichelbech

Thirteen days ago, Rick Stansbury wasn’t worried about playing Villanova.

He had just earned his first victory of the 2017 season, a breezy 30-point win over Kentucky Wesleyan College, when a reporter asked the second-year WKU head coach about how he planned to prepare for the nationally ranked Wildcats.

Except that’s not what Stansbury was thinking about — not to mention he wasn’t particularly happy about his team’s showing against a Division II opponent that night.

“Well first off, we gotta get ready for Nicholls State. That’s the next one,” he said in response to the question.

A few days later Stansbury’s team proved to be ready for Nicholls State as the Hilltoppers won comfortably and moved to 2-1 on the season. Stansbury’s comments following the 100-86 win over Nicholls were largely centered around getting his team to play a complete game instead of just winning one half.

At the conclusion of WKU’s most recent contest on Friday in last week’s Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, more memorable than listening to a video of his postgame thoughts was watching Stansbury call his players down a line to run toward him and chest bump him in celebration. His team had played a couple of complete games, and some meaningful ones too.

WKU returned home on Saturday with two quality wins and an impressive representation of Bluegrass basketball in the Bahamas after knocking off No. 18 Purdue and Southern Methodist.

In what has become one of the best holiday tournament fields each year, Western Kentucky was likely the most unfamiliar brand amongst the eight teams in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Entering the tournament, the odds were stacked against the Hilltoppers even before considering the opposing competition.

Stansbury had only eight players at his disposal (none of which are taller than 6 feet 9 inches tall), zero quality wins and a team still trying to develop a chemistry good enough to put together two halves of basketball like he had been asking for.

Besides that, WKU was guaranteed to play the No. 5 team in the country/2016 National Champion/No. 1 overall seed in the 2017 NCAA Tournament in Villanova, and could’ve played arguably the nation’s most talented roster (No. 2 Arizona), a 2017 Sweet 16 team (Purdue), the defending American Athletic Conference champion (SMU) or two teams who went on to prove their worth in pulling upsets of their own (Northern Iowa and North Carolina State).

The competition was there, and WKU gave it its absolute best shot.

After hanging tough and losing by single-digits to Villanova, the Hilltoppers outrebounded a significantly taller Purdue team and grabbed their first win over a Power 5 school since 2014 behind a breakout game from freshman guard Jake Ohmer.

A day later, the Hilltoppers faced a well-coached SMU team fresh off taking down Arizona the day before, and, behind the heroics of a late Ohmer 3-pointer, stole another win to finish 2-1 in the tournament.

If not for all the noise Arizona made by dropping all three of its games in the tournament, the Hilltoppers’ national statement would’ve been made even louder.

Just to provide some perspective, let’s anchor down a timeline of the past two months.

On Sept. 18, the wildest offseason imaginable concludes with Mitchell Robinson leaving for a final time. Less than a month later, Stansbury loses yet another assistant coach when Ben Hansbrough resigns on Oct. 15, two days after getting arrested for a DUI.

WKU falls in its opening game to Missouri State on Nov. 10.

Thirteen days later, Stansbury notches the program’s first win in nearly three years over a Power 5 opponent.

With all of the potential distractions from the roulette of players coming in and out of the program in the past year, the Hilltoppers’ wins last week further prove that Rick Stansbury is immune to the sense of fear. And that mentality is clearly translating to his players.

Stansbury’s squad is a team your grandpa would love. The roster didn’t come together as anticipated, but it’s a collection of a few scrappy players, some pure athletes and an overall mix of different talents that flat out plays hard.

The bad news is the Hilltoppers are still waiting on two ineligible players to be cleared to put them over the top. It doesn’t matter who the players are. As long as they are healthy humans who know what a basketball looks like, they would be incredibly valuable in providing a cushion of depth to the eight current players.

But the good news is, the two players anxiously waiting aren’t “just a couple of bodies” to help run a full scrimmage in practice. If Moustapha Diagne and Josh Anderson are eventually cleared this season, they could position Stansbury’s team for a serious run at a Conference USA title.

WKU’s success despite the lack of eligible players really can make one wonder just how good the Hilltoppers could be had they not lost the talent they did right before the season started.

But the optimists in the crowd shouldn’t be wondering, they should just be smiling.

Because this is not your father’s WKU team and even though he would love to watch them, it’s not necessarily your grandfather’s team either. This group of Hilltoppers is different. They are their own team. They won’t always win in a conventional fashion, and they may lose some games that won’t make a whole lot of sense, but they’re going to show up no matter how big the obstacle is.

Sports Editor Evan Heichelbech can be reached at 502-415-1817 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @evanheich.

Editor’s note: a previous version of this story said that WKU had not won a Power 5 game since 2008. The Hilltoppers defeated SEC opponent Ole Miss in December of 2014.