Stephens: Topper offense absent in loss to UALR

Brad Stephens

WKU’s loss to Arkansas-Little Rock Saturday made one thing clear.

The Toppers won’t make much of this 2012-13 season if they can’t put the ball in the basket a little more often.

There’s no positive way to spin WKU’s (11-9, 5-4 Sun Belt Conference) offensive performance Saturday in a 59-54 home loss to the Trojans (12-9, 6-4).

Brandon Harris, the team’s do-everything junior guard, scored 22 points and hit a career-high six three-pointers. George Fant attacked the basket and earned 10 free throw attempts, finishing with 13 points.

The rest of the lineup left a lot to be desired.

Leading scorer T.J. Price tallied six points and was a non-factor after tweaking an ankle injury early in the second half.

Caden Dickerson was back on the floor for the first time since injuring his shoulder Nov. 29 against Louisiana-Monroe. Understandably rusty, he was held scoreless on 0-of-2 shooting in 19 minutes.

Dickerson joined walk-on freshman guard Percy Blade as Toppers who played double-digit minutes without scoring.

Coach Ray Harper’s two big men, centers Aleksejs Rostov and Teeng Akol, combined for seven points in 46 minutes.

It was hard to find guys other than Fant and Harris doing much offensively.

“It’s one of those things that — when you look at the stat sheet, there’s not a lot of different points from a lot of different people,” Harper said. “We need production from guys on a consistent basis. We can’t be guessing on who’s going to show up from one game to the next.”

WKU struggled early, held without a field goal for the final 8:09 of the first half. The Toppers struggled late, making just 8-of-28 field goals in the second half.

Combine anemic offense with allowing UALR to shoot 61 percent in the second half, and WKU lost for the fourth time in its last five outings. The Toppers haven’t scored more than 67 points in any of those four losses.

The Sun Belt isn’t a league where you need to score 80 points a night to win, but it’s hard to pile up wins when you can’t break 70.

The only “quick fix” for WKU’s problems, senior point guard Jamal Crook, sat on the bench Saturday wearing street clothes. He’s been in that spot ever since breaking his foot in a 75-70 loss to Murray State on Dec. 16.

Put Crook back on the floor and you’ve added a confident vet that can make the tough pass, drive into the paint and hit some open shots.

That move would also take a lot of the pressure off Harris, who has had to play nearly every minute of game action since Crook was injured.

But it’ll still be another few weeks before Crook is back on the floor.

Even when he does come back, his presence won’t mean as much if the rest of the team is still playing inconsistently.

The Toppers’ last two games are as good an illustration of those inconsistencies as you’ll find.

WKU’s offense was in rhythm Thursday in a 72-49 win over Louisiana-Lafayette. Passes were reaching their targets, the ball was getting into the paint and shots were falling.

Saturday it was stagnant ball movement, 18 turnovers and a lot of shots that clanged off the iron.

“It comes down to when (shots) are going in, we look at lot better,” Harper said. “When they’re not, we struggle. We’re not a potent offensive team. We’re just not.”

The Toppers don’t have to be potent offensively. They can win some low-scoring games with defense and rebounding.

But to beat good basketball teams, WKU will have to put the basketball through the net with some degree of regularity.

They can’t afford an offensive effort like Saturday’s come March.