Staying Focused: Hilltoppers looking to defend Diddle this weekend

WKU sophomore Ben Lawson slam dunks for an easy two during the teams matchup against UTEP.

Billy Rutledge

After the team’s first loss since Dec. 20 and a bounce back win on the road against Southern Miss, the WKU basketball team (15-6, 8-1 C-USA) will look to defend its home court Thursday and Saturday against two Conference USA foes. The Hilltoppers host North Texas on Thursday and Rice on Saturday — two teams that sit ninth and tenth respectively in the C-USA standings. The Hilltoppers are tied for first place in the league.

Entering the last third of the season, the team is more concerned about staying focused than looking at the standings. Early success has allowed WKU to reach the 15-win mark before February for the first time since 2007-08. 

Their last win was the team’s tenth in 11 outings, a mark they would like to improve upon as some of the lower-tier conference teams come into Diddle Arena.

“The coaches are very good with us,” sophomore guard Brandon Price said. “When we were going into conference play, we were ranked seventh in the coaches rankings, so we have been using that as fuel to go at the bigger teams so we can prove ourselves. Now we have got there, and everyone wants to beat us. We are the ones with the targets on our backs. So we are now using that as our fuel to go out and play hard every night.”

The Hilltoppers’ first opponent, the Mean Green of North Texas, will try to give WKU its second loss at home this season. With early season losses to Belmont and No. 4 ranked Louisville, WKU has managed to win seven straight games at Diddle, where continued fan support has been shown this season.

Head Coach Ray Harper has personally thanked the WKU fans multiple times this season for making Diddle a tough place to play and for the fans being behind the team. The attendance marks this season have reached over 6,000 people three times, including a sold-out 7,598 person crowd for the Louisville game on Dec. 20.

“The home crowd has been huge,” Price said. “It was nothing like last year. This year, the fans have been really helpful. The crowd can get behind us and sometimes they will us to win. Once they get going, good things really start to happen.”

North Texas (9-11, 3-5 C-USA) is coming off a three-game homestead where the team went 2-1 in the process defeating Louisiana Tech, WKU’s only conference loss. Headlined by senior guard Jordan Williams, the six-foot-six inch player from Dallas who leads the Mean Green in scoring with 15.8 points per game and 46 assists this season.

The only other player to average double-digit points is freshman forward Jeremy Combs, who averages 10.8 points per game with a team-high 6.6 rebounds per game. The Green’s 1-6 record on the road will have to improve if they want to gain a significant seeding in the C-USA tournament at the end of the season.

“They are good. They are very talented,” Harper said. “Earlier in the year they beat Creighton by about 30. You watch them on tape, and they are long and athletic. They cause you a lot of concerns, but we have two more days to try and get ready for them.”

The Hilltoppers opponent Saturday, the 6-14 Rice Owls, have two players that will dictate the teams success. Sophomore guard, Marcus Jackson and senior forward Seth Gearhart average 14.5 and 14.2 points per game respectively. The duo rank in the top three of nearly every category for the Owls including assists, steals and rebounds. 

WKU hosts North Texas on Thursday, Feb. 5 and Rice Saturday, Feb. 7, both at Diddle. 

“There is balance in conference,” Harper said. “UTSA came in here a few weeks ago and we had to go right to the wire. They are right there about the same spot as North Texas. There are just not any bad teams. Everyone in the league plays a little bit different. I think it’s a great league and I think it’s a league that should receive multiple bids when it comes tournament time here in about a month.”