WKU prepares for inaugural Conference USA play

The WKU men’s basketball team huddles before the start of their Nov. 15 game against Austin Peay. The Hilltoppers defeated the Governors 77-70. Brandon Carter/HERALD

Billy Rutledge

It has been 183 days since WKU officially joined Conference USA on July 1 in all athletics. Yet, Sunday brings the men’s basketball program its first game against a Conference USA foe — a 4-8 Marshall squad that has lost eight of its last nine games.

WKU finished non-conference play with a record of 7-5 as Head Coach Ray Harper notched his 400th career win after going through a schedule ranked 44th in strength according to CBSsports.com. The Hilltoppers’ stint included road games at Minnesota, Stony Brook, Ole Miss and Murray State, a neutral court win against Saint Joseph’s at Madison Square Garden and home games against Bowling Green State, Belmont and the then No. 4-ranked Louisville Cardinals.

Through that time, WKU defeated an SEC opponent on the road for the first time since 2006, held Diddle Arena over capacity against the Cardinals and racked up back-to-back 40+ point wins for the first time since 2001.

WKU has won six of its last eight games and have produced a 5-2 record at home this season. Over the last two games, the Hilltoppers have combined for 46 assists, which included 24 against Brescia — a season high.

Senior guard T.J. Price comes into Sunday’s matchup averaging a team-high 16.8 points per game. Price scored 100 points over a four-game stretch this season, boasting at least 20 points in all of those games. Other Hilltoppers to average double-digit points this season are sophomore guard Chris Harrison-Docks, with 11.3 points, and senior forward George Fant with 11.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.

“Now you are at the point where they got to play through mistakes, you know what to expect and guys have to know what to expect out of each other,” Harper said on the IMG Hilltopper Sports Network after WKU’s win vs Alice Lloyd College Monday. “The biggest concern I have right now is we’ve got to get some really good post play going into conference play. It has to come from someone other than George Fant…One of those other guys have to step up. It has to be Ben (Lawson), it has to be Alex (Rostov), it has to be Justin (Johnson), it has to be Rob (Marberry) or maybe even Nigel (Snipes) at the four but we have to find one.”

Freshman forward Justin Johnson has been closest to filling that void for the Hilltoppers as he averages 6.1 points and 5.9 rebounds a game. The next closest player Harper mentioned would be sophomore forward Ben Lawson who averages 3.8 points and 2.8 rebounds.

It has been the guard play for WKU that has dictated success in the first half of the season. Along with the solid play of Price and Harrison-Docks, senior guard Trency Jackson has led the Hilltoppers on the defensive end while freshman guard DJ Clayton is quickly becoming one of the first players off the bench for Harper. Clayton posted back-to-back double-digit performances against Louisville and Brescia.

Harper acknowledge after the team’s win against Alice Lloyd College that the Hilltoppers are starting to work together during the most important part of the season.

“Chris Harrison-Dock’s pass to Trency Jackson late in the second half, Chris could have taken that shot guys, he had a good three,” Harper said. “But he gave it up to Trency Jackson in the corner who made a three, and I told him in the locker room that’s when you know you’re really coming together as a team because you’re sharing the basketball and playing so unselfish right now and that’s how we have to be if we are going to win.”

After starting off the season 3-0, the Marshall Thundering Herd have struggled to get back in the win column as their only other win came at home against Division II opponent King University on Dec. 16.

The only player averaging double digits for the Herd is redshirt sophomore forward Ryan Taylor. After starting every game this season, Taylor averages 14.0 points per game and 8.9 rebounds. The next highest player in rebounds is junior forward Jay Johnson with 3.9 rebounds and 5.9 points.

Redshirt sophomore guard Austin Loop is the other playmaker for the Herd, having started every game for Marshall and averaging 9.8 points per game. Loop is shooting .405 percent from three-point range and has made 30 out of 74 three-pointers he has taken.

“This is a new conference, we’re ready,” Jackson said on the IMG Hilltopper Sports Network. “Coach always stresses coming out playing with energy like we did tonight, we just try to come out and play with energy on the defensive end, try and get stops. If we can get stops we will be in good shape.”

WKU takes on Marshall Sunday at 2 p.m. CT at Diddle Arena.