Stephens: WKU has made it through the tough part

WKU junior guard Brandon Harris drives the ball against Louisville sophomore guard/forward Wayne Blackshear during the game Saturday, Dec. 22 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. Louisville defeated Western Kentucky 78-55. 

Brad Stephens

NASHVILLE — It’s not even Christmas and Ray Harper’s WKU squad has faced trials tougher than any it’ll likely encounter come March.

The Toppers have played three games in seven days against the three best teams they’ll face during the regular season.

They played most of those three games without their senior point guard, Jamal Crook, and leading scorer and second-best rebounder, T.J. Price.

George Fant wasn’t at 100 percent. Kevin Kaspar battled a hamstring tweak. Teeng Akol got sick. Caden Dickerson sat at home in Texas with an injured shoulder.

Considering all that, the week’s results were predictable.

WKU lost a hard-fought battle to Murray State Sunday in Murray, 75-50. The Toppers were blown out Tuesday in Richmond, Va., by VCU, 76-44.

And finally on Saturday an overmatched WKU squad fell 78-55 in Bridgestone Arena to No. 5 Louisville.

Three losses in one week, all while some of the team’s best players sat on the sidelines.

And yet Harper was pretty upbeat when talking about the week as a whole, and the second half of Saturday’s game in particular.

“I thought we grew up a lot in the second half tonight,” WKU’s coach said.

WKU came out of the locker room for the second half trailing Louisville 40-22.

Price and Kaspar were both out for the game after aggravating prior injuries in the first half. So too was Akol, who Harper said was fighting through an illness and having trouble breathing at times when he was on the court.

So in the second half against the Cardinals Harper trotted out a ragtag rotation, one which included walk-on Percy Blade, little-used freshman Eddie Alcantara and some other WKU players that rarely spend time in the limelight.

For the most part the group held its own in the last 20 minutes, cutting the deficit to 12 with 10 minutes to play before a Wayne Blackshear three put the Cards back in control.

Alcantara made the most of his chance off the bench, scoring 11 points and grabbing six rebounds.

Brandon Harris, likely the team’s fourth or fifth scoring option coming into the season, had to both run the offense at point guard while providing much of the scoring as a shooter for the third straight game. Though he had a poor shooting night (5-of-18), he led the team in points (14), rebounds (seven), assists (three), and steals (three).

Other guys like Blade and Stephon Drane played as well as one could’ve asked against one of the nation’s best teams.

Obviously Harper would’ve liked to have WKU’s big guns like Crook and Price healthy for a game like Saturday’s. There was no way the Toppers were pulling the upset without them.

But the experience players like Alcantara and Blade gained Saturday against the nations No. 5 team could pay huge dividends in the future.

Harper’s practices are notoriously tough. Yet there’s no way to simulate taking on quality players like Blackshear, Russ Smith and Peyton Siva in live game action in front of 10,000-plaus fans until you actually do it.

“I think it’s going to help a lot,” Alcantara said of the experience. “You go out there, you get the experience, you get the jitters out, butterflies, and you learn.”

WKU will get healthier. Price and Kaspar should be back when the Toppers play Florida International Thursday, Harper said.

Dickerson was doing some jump shooting today as part of his rehab and could be back before too long, Harper said.

Crook will also likely be back within a month or so.

Plus there are no more Murray’s, VCU’s and Louisville’s on the Sun Belt schedule.

The Toppers can get their mojo back against all the pushovers the league has to offer, the FIU’s, Florida Atlantic’s and Louisana-Monroe’s of the world.

And if for some reason Crook or Price or someone else can’t go, the guys in line to fill their place will have real game experiences against some quality opponents from which to draw.

Harris has experience being “the guy” if need be. Blade has learned how to face a legitimate full-court defense. Alcantara has guarded some of the nation’s best players.

When the WKU schedule was released before the season, no stretch drew fans attention like the three-games-in-one-week segment against Murray, VCU and Louisville.

Winning just one of those three would’ve been a solid result.

Though the Toppers were unable to accomplish even that, they can take encouragement knowing that tough stretch of the schedule is over and done with. They can also take encouragement knowing their team has dealt with a lot of adversity and has faced a few trials-by-fire.

Things can only get easier from here.