Rest at a premium as Toppers adjust to shorter bench

Rest at a premium as Toppers adjust to shorter bench

Zach Greenwell

WKU has gotten used to playing short-handed this season.

So as the Toppers hit the final stretch before the Sun Belt tournament, they said a lack of depth won’t be an excuse.

Senior forward Cliff Dixon’s dismissal from the team last Sunday for a violation of team rules leaves WKU with just nine scholarship players.

“We’re all we’ve got,” sophomore guard Caden Dickerson said. “We’re a family, so when your number’s called, you go in and play as hard as you can. That’s the approach we’re taking right now.”

Dixon makes the 10th player that has either left WKU or been dismissed during Head Coach Ken McDonald’s tenure. Junior guard Ken Brown was dismissed from WKU in December for a violation of the school’s academic policy.

Freshman guard Brandon Peters was ruled academically ineligible on Jan. 1, meaning that he’s still with the team but cannot play again this season.

To make matters even worse, the Toppers’ lone walk-on, freshman guard Mike Gabbard, is still recovering from a high ankle sprain.

McDonald said Gabbard has begun working on his lateral movement, and the staff is “hopeful” he’ll return sooner than later.

But even with all the losses, McDonald said the Toppers aren’t changing their approach.

“We’ve been playing seven or eight guys,” he said. “We’ve got nine, and if Gabbard’s back, we’ve got 10. That’s really not going to be a factor. There’s a lot of teams in that position. We’re not going to use that as an excuse.”

The lack of depth showed on Monday night, when WKU needed a late burst to push past Florida Gulf Coast, 80-70.

The game was the Toppers’ third in five days, and the nature of the game kept McDonald from using the end of his bench.

Junior guard Kahlil McDonald and sophomore center Teeng Akol played a combined 35 minutes as reserves against FGCU, but freshman forwards Kene Anyigbo and Stephon Drane were limited to three minutes each.

“I think if there’s anything from this game that I’m disappointed in, it’s that we didn’t get to play those guys and have them gain some experience,” Ken McDonald said. “To be honest, those guys went in, and they weren’t physical enough, and they didn’t play hard enough.

“Sometimes it’s in their own hands as well.”

Sophomore guard Jamal Crook said it’s important that the Toppers recognize how valuable every player is for the final three games of the regular season and beyond.

WKU played Arkansas-Little Rock Thursday night and visits Louisiana-Lafayette at 7 p.m. Saturday in what will be a quick turnaround.

“I think guys just need to stay off their feet and take it light — take it a day at a time,” Crook said. “The time that we have to go rest — don’t take it for granted. Just relax and take it from there.”