MEN’S HOOPS: Toppers struggle then stabilize

Danny Schoenbaechler

The past two seasons have been nothing short of dominant for Western’s men’s basketball team.

But this year the Hilltoppers have shown vulnerability not seen the previous two years.

After losing its conference opener, Western hit the road for Arkansas and came away with two wins — showing it doesn’t plan on having its domination end.

The Toppers beat Arkansas State 77-69 on Saturday, ending a seven-game road trip. They also defeated Arkansas-Little Rock 74-66 on Thursday.

Western (9-6, 2-1 SBC) is starting to show the improvement for which coach Dennis Felton has been waiting.

“I feel awfully good after this trip to Arkansas,” Felton said. “We really played with good consistency across the two games, and we responded very well to adversity.”

The Toppers got off to a quick start Saturday, and led 15-2 after six minutes of play. Seniors Filip Videnov and Nate Williams sparked the initial burst, scoring seven and five points, respectively, during the run.

The largest lead of the game was 40-18 with 2:12 left in the first half.

The Indians chipped away at the deficit and drew within 65-60 at the three-minute mark of the second half. Sophomore Patrick Sparks’ ensuing basket and steal, which led to a David Boyden bucket, put the game out of reach.

Williams led all scorers with 18 points to go along with seven rebounds.

“Our biggest improvement has been consistency,” Williams said. “We have started doing the things that we were doing before this year.”

Videnov chipped in 15 points and senior Mike Wells added 13.

Wells might have provided more on the defensive end than he did on offense. He collected six rebounds and five blocks and was matched up against Tevoris Thompson, who came into the game as the Sun Belt’s second-leading scorer at 21 points per game. Wells locked Thompson down and held him to four points.

“He was terrific on Thompson. He was really lighting up most everyone he played,” said Felton. “(Thompson) ended up not playing a lot, because he just wasn’t very effective for them.”

Wells was one of four Toppers to score in double figures, which has been common this season. All five starters are averaging at least 10 a game, but none more than 12.

“We’ve always been balanced. This has been five years like this,” Felton said. “We have never had anybody scoring an inordinate amount of points. That’s pretty much just how we are.”

Senior center Chris Marcus continued his long road back to the court from foot surgery. In his third game this season, the preseason All-American candidate played 11 minutes, scoring four points and pulling down five rebounds.

It is the same injury that forced him to miss 17 games last season.

“I’m feeling all right, but it still hurts when I play,” Marcus said. “It is good to be back playing with the fellas. But it’s going to be a while before I really feel like myself on the court.”

Western has two home games this week against New Orleans on Thursday and South Alabama on Saturday. The Toppers will try to continue both their two-game winning streak and their conference domination.

“We’ve picked it up the past couple of games, and we are still the champions, so everybody wants to knock us off,” Marcus said.

Reach Danny Schoenbaechler at [email protected]