Conference seeding on the line for WKU and ULL

WKU junior forward George Fant lays the ball up to the rim during WKU’s win over Troy of 81-76 on Thursday Feb. 13, 2014 at Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Ky. (Jeff Brown/HERALD)

Tyler Lashbrook

The last time WKU and Louisiana-Lafayette met, the Toppers (19-10, 11-5 Sun Belt) fought — almost literally — in a hostile environment at the Cajun Dome against a talented Ragin’ Cajuns squad.

The Toppers won that contest 79-70, but the scoreboard doesn’t reflect how close that game was: It was a two-point game with under seven minutes left before WKU pulled away late.

It was the raucous crowd, however, that senior guard Brandon Harris remembers most.

“Last year, I mean, we heard a lot of stuff, but this year it was getting out of hand,” Harris said. “(We were) getting called ‘half-breed’ and all kinds of stuff. So I’m hoping our fans get on to their players like they did us there,” he joked.

The Toppers will have their hands full against ULL (19-10, 10-6). the Ragin’ Cajuns are just one game back from WKU in the standings for second place, and finishing second in the regular season brings along benefits for the Sun Belt tournament.

The team that finishes in second place gets a two-game bye to the semi-finals. Rather than fighting through games on Thursday and Friday, the No. 2 seed is guaranteed a game on Saturday. Win that game on Saturday and the winner is in the championship game Sunday.

“We could get a little more rest,” senior forward O’Karo Akamune said. “Because playing four games in four days is tiring on the body.”

The Toppers have won four games in four days the past two years, but Harris said that they would be happy to not have to go through that again.

A win against Louisiana-Lafayette guarantees the Toppers a No. 2 seed, but beating ULL comes with a whole set of challenges, namely in its two best players: junior point guard Elfrid Payton and sophomore forward Shawn Long.

Payton is third in the conference at 19 points and Long is second, averaging 19.5 points per contest.

That duo leads the Sun Belt’s top scoring offense; the Ragin’ Cajuns, as a team, average nearly 82 points a night.

Long leads the conference in rebounding per game (10.4) and Payton leads in assists (6) and steals (2.3) per game.

Coach Ray Harper told WKU Radio after the Toppers’ loss at UT Arlington Saturday that Payton could be a first-round draft pick in the upcoming NBA Draft and he said that Long is one of the top big men in the conference.

“I still think we can make a run at this thing,” Harper said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “But we’ve got to have someone other than George (Fant) and T.J. (Price) and it’s got to be someone on the inside.

“We’ve got to have production out of Daouda (Soumaoro), O’Karo, Aaron (Adeoye) or Ben (Lawson).”

Harper said that Lawson is going to get some playing time in WKU’s last two games.

“We’ve looked at every option possible and we’ve got to find someone who can give us something and that may be six points, but we can’t have a zero in that stat column every game. We just can’t.”

Harper was referring to WKU’s lack of consistent production down low alongside Fant. He has emptied his bench with different players manning the center position and it’s worked in spurts, but nothing has worked for long stretches.

Lawson is listed at 7-foot and has an enormous, rangy wingspan that he can use to protect the paint. He has a thin frame, but he’s quick running the floor and has a nice touch on the offensive end.

Harper said that he’s going to “see what happens” when his freshman big man is thrown in the fire.

Lawson will see the best competition that the Sun Belt has to offer. After hosting the current third place team, ULL, WKU will travel to Atlanta to play the first-place and regular season Sun Belt champions, Georgia State.

“I’d like to get some more wins,” Harper said. “I’d like to win them all.We’re playing the two best teams in the league, there’s no question watching tape.This will be two great tests for us as we try and get ready for the conference tournament.”