Texas-sized road trip next for Hilltoppers

WKU junior guard Fredrick Edmond (25) drives to the hoop against UAB guard Hakeem Baxter during the game Thursday. Western Kentucky University Men’s Basketball team takes on the University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers at Diddle Arena on January 28, 2016, in Bowling Green, Ky. WKU leads UAB at the half, 40 – 35. Matt Lunsford/HERALD

Matthew Stewart

Being on the road is something the WKU men’s basketball team (11-11) knows all too well. The Hilltoppers will be heading to the Lone Star State to take on University of Texas at San Antonio (4-18) Thursday at 7 p.m.

WKU will then travel to El Paso to face off against the Miners of the University of Texas at El Paso (11-11) on Saturday at 4 p.m.

Despite a disappointing 2-9 record away from the friendly confides of Diddle Arena, the Toppers are confident heading into their trip to Texas.

“We know how to win when we are not at home and when the crowd is against us,” redshirt senior forward Nigel Snipes said.

WKU is looking to build off its last two games at home in Diddle Arena. These displayed the overall talent of the Toppers as they defeated the top team in the conference and only lost to the No. 2 team by two points.

“We just need to continue to get better,” Head Coach Ray Harper said. “I thought our last two games were probably the best back-to-back games we played defensively. Not necessarily the first half of Saturday, but I thought [during] the second half we did some really good things, so we took a step forward and we need to do that again this weekend.”

The young Topper team showed it could fight back from a sizable deficit in its last-second loss to Middle Tennessee. Transition defense was the story when WKU managed to knock off No. 1 team in the conference UAB. The Hilltoppers held the Blazers to just 8 fast-break points.

“I really see some positives in this team going forward,” Harper said. “I think they are starting to really get better. We got a lot of new guys that are starting to figure things out.”

Freshman point guard Chris McNeal has surpassed expectations this year. McNeal is averaging 5.7 points per game to go along with 4.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists.

“He’s the first true freshman point guard I’ve ever started,” Harper said. “Usually you like to bring them along and let them learn behind an older veteran, but that wasn’t the case for him. I think he is playing well.”

“I think he has handled it very well,” redshirt senior guard Aaron Cosby said. “He’s always looking for advice, always in the gym getting better. I think he is handling it as well as any freshman could.”

Thursday night the Toppers will have their hands full with guard play as UTSA senior guard Ryan Bowie is averaging 17.1 points per game and 7.2 rebounds.

Sophomore guard Christian Wilson is also putting up impressive numbers with 16.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per outing.

“They [UTSA] are much better at home,” Harper said. “Their guards are really good as they are a guard-dominated team. We are going to have to do a good job with our perimeter defense. It will be a challenge; they play much better at home, and again, we should be accustomed to the road.”

UTEP also presents some challenges for the Tops. The Miners are dropping 73.9 points per game this season while shooting 44 percent from the floor as a team.

The Miners also have four players averaging double figures on the season, which means the defense needs to be on its toes because there are a number of scoring threats on the floor at any given time.

“We have a lot of confidence moving forward,” Cosby said. “It [past performance] shows that we can play with better teams and show what we are really capable of.”

President Gary Ransdell spoke with Herald editorial board members on Tuesday about the current state of the men’s basketball program at WKU.

“Men’s basketball is still our heritage,” Ransdell said. “It’s always going to be most important in our athletic landscape.” 

Ransdell said he doesn’t know what the future holds for the men’s basketball program, but expressed hope that the team would make the NCAA Tournament in March. 

“If we don’t, it’ll be three straight years we’ve not been in the NCAA Tournament, and that’s not acceptable for Western Kentucky basketball,” Ransdell said. “It’s just not.”