Stephens: Now the tournament really starts for WKU

Brad Stephens

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — WKU showed up to meet Louisiana-Monroe Friday night in Summit Arena. That’s all it really had to do to advance to the second round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

WKU showed why the Warhawks went 4-22 this year, running like Wild Horses over coach Keith Richard’s ULM squad in the first half and cruising to a 74-60 win.

Friday for the Toppers was all about avoiding an embarrassing loss and not getting anyone hurt. They can put a check mark in both those boxes.

WKU (17-15) went a ridiculous 18-of-26 from the field in the first half, including an 8-of-14 mark from behind the arc.

Those included three 3-pointers from Caden Dickerson, who had a mere 13 points since coming back from a shoulder injury Jan. 19.

On the other side, Keith Richard’s Warhawks (4-23) were a Moonlight Mile from the basket on 21 of their 31 first half attempts.

The Toppers played sloppily in the second half, turning the ball over 11 times and scoring just 28 points.

“We just got sloppy with the ball,” said T.J. Price, who finished with a game-high 18 points. “We were just careless.”

But by then the game was well in hand.

Friday was a night on which WKU could give a “C” effort for an entire half and still win handily. That won’t be the case Saturday when it meets No. 3 seed South Alabama at 8:30 p.m. next door at Convention Center Court.

The Jaguars and Toppers split the season series — South Al winning 65-57 Jan. 24 in Mobile and WKU winning 79-73 Feb. 28 in Diddle Arena.

The Jaguars finished the regular year 14-6 in the league and feature the Sun Belt’s Player of the Year, forward Augustine Rubit.

There wasn’t anyone from ULM Friday capable of dominating the WKU player assigned to guard them. Rubit’s already had two big games against the Toppers, going for 19 points and 11 rebounds in Mobile and 23 points and nine rebounds in Bowling Green.

WKU coach Ray Harper illustrated just how good of a player Rubit is when he said he wouldn’t mind giving up a similar stat line Saturday.

“He had 23, but he was 8-of-18 from the field,” Harper said. “We’ll take that.

“We’ve got to make him work for his buckets. We can’t give him easy ones. We’ve got to do a good job of rotating, being smart and understanding when we’re trapping, when we’re not trapping. We need to give him a lot of looks… He’s a good player and you can’t just play him one way.”

It won’t be the end of the world if WKU allowed Rubit to get 20 points and 10 rebounds. It will be the end of its season if one of the Jaguars’ role players like Mychal Ammons, Antoine Allen or Javier Carter go off for a big stat line.

The Toppers will also need to avoid the sloppy basketball they played in the second half. But WKU fans should chalk those turnovers up to the complacency of a blowout rather than a real problem.

Factor in starting point guard Jamal Crook resting on the bench for most of the second half and the 20 giveaways aren’t much to worry about.

Drawing hapless ULM in the first round of the Tournament was everything for which the Toppers could’ve asked.

A Friday game against a weak opponent gave WKU the chance to get a feel for the arena and the rims, get the blood flowing after six days without a game and get the team’s confidence up, all while not having to exert itself too seriously.

Saturday night comes the Toppers’ first real challenge of this Sun Belt Tournament.

That’s when we’ll see what this WKU team has in store for us.