Tops overcome setbacks

Danny Schoenbaechler

The story of this basketball season has had uncountable twists and turns, but somehow Western is still in the position it always expected to be in.

Just with slightly different personnel.

The season’s preface included two offensive threats primed to take over.

But a shocking first chapter quickly dispelled that notion.

Junior forward Todor Pandov was expected to have a breakout season and has been called the team’s best player. But he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Western’s opening game.

All-American center Chris Marcus never recovered from a foot injury and contributed only 12 points and 12 rebounds in limited action before quitting the team.

These plot twists left the veteran-dominated Toppers (21-8 overall, 12-2 Sun Belt) in need of some youthful exuberance.

In stepped Anthony Winchester, who immediately contributed with outside shooting. The freshman from Austin, Ind., leads the team in three-point field goal percentage.

Winchester was joined in action by fellow freshmen Jamaal Brown, Danny Rumph and Kevin Massiah.

“Whenever we go to the bench, the first guys we turn to are freshmen,” Western head coach Dennis Felton said. “The freshmen have to perform well for us to have a chance of winning.”

Winchester has been the most consistent of the four newcomers. He twice had 16-point performances and has two five-assist outings.

“I feel really comfortable now when I’m in the game,” Winchester said. “I’ve gotten in at the end of some close games, and my confidence level has really risen.”

Brown also showed a flash of brilliance in his own 16-point game against Tennessee Tech.

The most recent freshman to make major contributions is Rumph. As a back-up point guard behind Patrick Sparks, Rumph saw little time early in the season.

“I feel much more confident than I did in the beginning,” Rumph said. “I’ve settled down, and I’m bringing more poise and leadership. I’ve got to be a leader at all times because I’m a point guard.”

His strong play has forced Felton to keep him in the game more. Rumph and Sparks have started to see action together in recent games.

“I like it. It gives us more speed and quickness out there,” Felton said. “It gives us more play making, and a lot of times it’s just a matter of playing the guys who are playing the best. When Danny’s playing well and Patrick’s playing well then we’ll play them together.”

Rumph’s youth is apparent in his stick-like, 185-pound frame. But he is also one of — if not the — quickest Hilltopper.

“We know that Patrick can play on and off the ball, and really Danny can, too,” Felton said. “But it always comes down to who’s playing best. Danny has made such strides defensively that we’ve been able to do it more. He’s really starting to give himself even more opportunities to play.”

The book on Sparks is that he is an excellent outside shooter and passer, but he sometimes takes too many chances.

After a spectacular freshman season, he has shown no signs of a sophomore slump. He is the Toppers’ leading scorer with 13.3 points a game and is leading the Sun Belt Conference with 5.7 assists per contest.

“He’s some basketball player,” South Alabama coach John Pelphrey said earlier this season. “That young man can play anywhere in the country. He’s a special basketball player.”

Sparks put together another strong performance against Middle Tennessee State on Saturday. He poured in 19 points to go along with his game-high four assists.

His prolific passing is a direct effect of his excellent floor vision. But Sparks attributes much of his scoring to his teammates’ ability to get him open.

“When I’m scoring a lot, it is because my teammates are helping to get me open and then getting me the ball,” he said.

As Sparks and the freshmen are preparing to write the final chapter in this season’s story, they are working with a happy ending to the regular season.

Things looked bleak in December when Western was 2-3, but February was much different.

After an embarrassing 86-65 loss at Detroit on Feb. 1, the Toppers reeled off nine straight victories as they charged into the postseason.

As two-time defending champs, Western is the SBC tournament favorite. But if they hope to crash the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive season, they will need to continue the current success.

In the minds of these youthful and resilient Hilltoppers, a final chapter of dancing is the only way this book should end.

Reach Danny Schoenbaechler at [email protected]