Toppers looking for answers after MTSU loss

Lucas Aulbach

The slumping Toppers hit arguably the lowest point of their season Saturday in a loss at Middle Tennessee State.

The 72-53 shellacking at the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., showed some fundamental flaws in the WKU (11-11, 5-6 Sun Belt Conference) team that has now lost six of its past seven games.

Ball control is the one that jumps off the postgame stat sheet.

The Toppers recorded a total of four assists and 18 turnovers against the Blue Raiders, including a dismal ratio of 1-to-12 in the first half.

MTSU (18-4, 10-1 SBC) deserves a share of the credit for WKU’s offensive struggles Saturday – the Blue Raiders lead the Sun Belt in defense, holding opponents to 58.4 points per game. They are No. 2 in the conference in turnover margin, a statistic WKU has fallen to No. 10 in.

Coach Ray Harper said MTSU fielded the best half-court defense the Toppers have faced this season – high praise from a coach whose team has faced AP top-25 teams Louisville and VCU.

“They’re 10-1 in this league for a reason,” Harper said. “They do it every night. They’ve done it every night all season long.”

Saturday wasn’t the first time WKU has struggled to move its offense, though. The Toppers haven’t had more assists than turnovers in a game since Dec. 19 against North Texas, when they had 11 assists and 10 turnovers.

In the seven games since, WKU has recorded a total of 57 assists and 116 turnovers – six of those games ended with a Topper loss.

The WKU offense has been missing a key ingredient during the recent skid. Senior point guard Jamal Crook has been on the bench with a broken foot, playing his last game Dec. 8 against IUPUI.

Crook is expected back sometime in the next two weeks.

Despite playing without their only true point guard, Harper said the Toppers have to learn to survive when they’re not at 100-percent.

“Injuries are a part of the game and we’ve got to figure out a way to win while you’ve got guys hurt,” he said.

Staying positive can be tough when the outlook is grim – WKU fell below .500 in Sun Belt play for the first time this season with the loss.

Sophomore forward Stephon Drane, who had nine points against the Blue Raiders, said keeping a good outlook could be important for the Toppers if they want to get out of this funk.

“I’m not really worried about dwelling on the bad things because that’s how teams get stuck,” Drane said. “So I believe it we stay positive and stay together like we should, we’ll be perfectly fine.”

The Toppers are set to take on Troy at home Thursday before taking a week off before their next game, on the road at North Texas.

Sophomore guard Kevin Kaspar was the only working piece on offense at times against MTSU, leading WKU with 14 points and four rebounds.

He echoed the statements that Drane made as the Toppers move forward.

“We’ve just got to keep our heads up like coach said,” Kaspar said. “We’ve got to come back on Monday and keep getting better. We have nine games left and that’s our goal right now – win nine of them and keep getting better each and every day.”