Stephens: Toppers starting to put it all together

Brad Stephens

The WKU team we all thought we’d see when the season started is becoming a reality.

We thought we’d see senior Jamal Crook run the squad at point guard, T.J. Price provide the outside scoring, George Fant the inside scoring, Brandon Harris pitch in with some 3-pointers and hustle plays and everyone else fill in where needed.

Those were the ingredients that sent the Toppers to their third straight win Thursday night, a 79-73 win over South Alabama in Diddle Arena.

They were also ingredients that were missing from WKU’s (16-14, 10-9 Sun Belt Conference) team for much of the year.

“Anybody that’s ever been through the rash of injuries we’ve been through — I don’t know if anyone in college basketball’s ever gone through that,” coach Ray Harper said.

That statement was probably a bit of an exaggeration. Through the annals of college basketball history, there have been plenty of teams whose seasons have been derailed by unlucky injuries.

But Topper fans have to like how their team has responded from their health woes.

Anyone that watched WKU get run out of the gym by Virginia Commonwealth in a 76-44 loss on Dec. 18 knows exactly how bleak things were for the Toppers earlier this year.

A broken foot sustained by Crook, a sprained ankle that nagged Price, Caden Dickerson’s injured shoulder and pesky injuries to backup point guard Kevin Kaspar and freshman Eddie Alcantara torpedoed WKU’s backcourt depth.

Harris was required to play nearly 40 minutes a night, both running the offense at point guard and being relied upon to lead the team in scoring.

Freshman walk-on Percy Blade was seeing consistent playing time, starting five games.

Times were so desperate that WKU football players Marcus Vasquez and Kawaun Jakes were fitted into basketball uniforms the night after they lost the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl.

Now the whole gang is healthy and playing like we thought they would at the beginning of the year.

Thursday WKU out-rebounded South Alabama 38-30, shot 57.1 percent in the second half and out-scored the Jaguars 30-7 off the bench.

“I’ve said this for awhile, that we were getting better, it’s just good that you’ve got some options,” Harper said. “You can turn to the bench, you’ve got some guys that if someone’s in foul trouble or someone’s not having as good of a night as they’re capable of, you’ve got some options for substitutions.”

The Toppers are starting to finish this season like they did the last.

Everyone remembers WKU’s four games in four days run through the Sun Belt Tournament. What some forget is the Toppers went into that tournament winners of their final two regular season games and playing the best basketball they’d played all year.

One year later WKU has won its last three going into its regular season finale against Middle Tennessee Saturday, and playing its best basketball of the season.

It’ll be hard for the Toppers to replicate what they did last year in Hot Springs.

But with everyone healthy, the pieces are starting to come together.