Pratt: Toppers continue to show strength in depth, but for how long?

WKU Hilltoppers get hyped up before a basketball game against UT Arlington at E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Ky. on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014. (Jabin Botsford / College Heights Herald)

Elliott Pratt

There’s something about close games in Diddle Arena recently.

Fans may call it magic – a high intensity game with a storybook script that has the Toppers fighting back to win it in the end. That trend has helped WKU (14-7, 6-2 Sun Belt Conference) win four-straight in the Sun Belt, but it’s not the mentality they want to play with.

Sure, they love the end result – that’s why you play the game. But it’s the process to get to the final buzzer on the winning end that could eventually wear down the Toppers. The wheels are spinning and moving fast with this team, but how long until we see them burn out? How long until we see fatigue get the best of them with five minutes left in the second half and have the magic dust fall on the opposition rather than themselves?

As if the nature of the closeness of games that basketball provides isn’t a grind to begin with, it doesn’t help to lose two key elements to your team.

WKU is indefinitely without senior point guard Kevin Kaspar to a left knee injury and sophomore big man Aleksej Rostov is out for an indefinite time due to medical issues with a blood clot in his upper extremity a problem that occurred during the Toppers road trip through Louisiana.

The loss of Rostov may turn out to be more impactful on the team than the loss of Kaspar, and that’s not to take anything away from the senior – Rostov adds size on the court when George Fant needs a load taken off, and Kaspar provides that veteran experience at the point.

All that is said to bring back the fact that WKU has done an excellent job of filling in when they need the next man to step up. Tonight, it was O’Karo Akamune, who finished with nine points and nine rebounds. Considering he has only played in six games prior to Thursday night with an average of two points and two rebounds per game, to say he was efficient for WKU would be an extreme understatement.

“I thought he was the difference. I thought his energy was the difference in the basketball game. I don’t know if there was one possession in the basketball game where I saw O’Karo take the possession off. If we can get that kind of energy and effort out of O’Karo the rest of the season, I’ll take that every night.”

I can’t help but revert back to the motivational speech Harper gave after the team’s overtime win over Arkansas State (which still makes me want to run head first through glass), when he praised his team’s mental and physical toughness.

That statement was on full display Thursday night. The Toppers didn’t get their first lead until there was 3:59 left to play in the game. They had fought back and flirted with a possession to tie or take the lead only to give it away for 36 minutes of the game, but their resilience never waivered.

We’ve seen with this team that their strength really does lie in numbers. Before the loss of Rostov and Kaspar, Harper could replace any starter on the floor with the next man up from at least three deep on the bench. All nine players that saw the floor Thursday night were out there for no less than 11 minutes individually, so each contribution was key for the Toppers to win.

This team has done an excellent job at staying healthy and using its bench effectively, which contributed 24 points to the Toppers win. They’ve been lucky to avoid the injury bug that plagued them last season. For the exact same reason they’re successful this year is why they couldn’t get anything to work out for them last season.

At 6-2 in the Sun Belt, things are looking good for WKU. But how long until the mojo is gone? Who’s to say it even will disappear? You have to consider those aspects when you’re team doesn’t hold a lead until 36 minutes into the game and you lose two essential pieces to your lineup in one game.

Freshman guard Chris Harrison-Docks is one to vouch for the team’s toughness, but he even knows these slow starts to games will eventually catch up with them.

“I always think that we have the team to come back and can win,” Docks said. “It never crossed my mind. We can’t keep getting off to these slow starts. We always end up getting down and always fighting back. That shows a lot of character that we can do that, but I think the sooner we can come out on runs and stay on top, we’ll continue to get better than we have been.”

If the team does indeed find a stump in the road, it will probably have to wait until their trip to Arkansas next week. Saturday’s opponent in Texas State (6-14, 2-5 Sun Belt) brings in a Bobcat team in last place in the league in scoring offense with just 63 points per game. WKU’s defense has seen its biggest test in that category in the past two games with the professional prospect of Elfrid Payton and the speed that lies in UT-Arlington’s long lineup.

The Toppers should be in good shape for Saturday because they’re strength continues to lie in their depth and contributions from the bench. For now, it’s working out for them. But like CHD said, they can’t continue to let slow starts be their calling card.