The Walkthrough: A trend report from both sides of Diddle

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

Evan Heichelbech

On Thursday night, one WKU basketball team will look to gain sole possession of first place in its conference while the other will try desperately to even its win/loss record. At the most crucial time of the season, WKU’s two basketball teams are trending in completely opposite directions.

Entering the 2016-2017 season, both the men’s and women’s basketball teams on the Hill had moderately high expectations surrounding them.

A little less than 11 months ago, Rick Stansbury came to Bowling Green with a mission to re-establish a winning pedigree at WKU. The work for Stansbury to achieve that mission right away was well cut out for him. For a brief period of time, he had no scholarship guards to run full practices with and the need to fill his roster was urgent. But as time progressed throughout the summer and into the fall, the excitement and anticipation for the Stansbury Era to begin was mounting quickly. Stansbury filled the roster with graduate transfers from Power-5 programs like Providence and Washington State, and two Tennessee transfers would become eligible by the start of conference play. He nearly convinced former elite-level recruits Malik Newman (Kansas) and Andrew White (Syracuse) to come to the Hill.

The Hilltoppers started off sluggish — as any team with dramatic roster turnover likely would — barely escaping exhibition play without a loss.

Fast forward to the latter part of January and things weren’t much better. Sophomore  forward Willie Carmichael was dismissed from the team and two other players left, limiting Stansbury’s rotation yet again.

But even before then, the Hilltoppers (12-13, 6-6 in Conference USA) never seemed to truly understand how to play as one unit. Shining performances seem to occur in just about every game, the most recent of which came from junior forward Justin Johnson who eclipsed 1,000 career points on Saturday during his current five game double-double streak, but the team never seems able to play cohesively, and definitely not consistently.

Even though Stansbury was able to fill the roster with about as much quality as he could’ve at the time, it was unreasonable to believe that WKU would be a lock to win the C-USA or anything of that nature. It’s a new head coach with a mix of old and new players in a top-heavy field of competition.

A team that was expected to win, however, was the one led by women’s basketball head coach Michelle Clark-Heard. The Lady Tops were picked to win the conference in the preseason, and for the most part they’ve lived up to the expectations.

One year removed from being 19-4 and contending for the C-USA regular season championship, Clark-Heard’s 2016-2017 squad is up to par again.

Despite taking four losses before conference play, the Lady Tops (18-6, 10-2 C-USA) have battled back, winning 13 of their last 15 games setting up a winner-claims-first-place affair Thursday in Murfreesboro.

The additions of Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, Jaycee Coe and Whitney Creech have only boosted Clark-Heard’s rotation. The Lady Tops returned every significant piece from a season ago and they’ve relied on their depth and balance to get them back toward the top of the conference at a pivotal time.

With under 10 games remaining in the regular season for both teams, beating quality opponents carries a bigger emphasis.

Both WKU basketball teams will play a game against Middle Tennessee tonight. Stansbury and company will try to win one game against C-USA-leading Middle Tennessee in Diddle Arena. The Hilltoppers will not have a winning record when the sun comes up tomorrow, regardless of the outcome. On the road, the Lady Tops have a chance to inch one win closer to a fifth consecutive 20-win season as well as move into first place in their conference.

Looking at both teams at the same time feels like looking into a reverse mirror.

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