The Hilltoppers hope to stop losing skid with two games at home

Kaden Gaylord-Day, Men's Basketball Reporter

WKU Basketball (10-9, C-USA 2-4) head coach Rick Stansbury, graduate Camron Justice and senior Jairus Hamilton met with the media Wednesday afternoon ahead of the Hilltoppers’ matchups against the UAB Blazers (16-4, 6-1 C-USA) Thursday night and ‘100 Miles of Hate’ rival Middle Tennessee (12-6, 3-2 C-USA) Saturday afternoon. 

The road doesn’t get easier for the Hilltoppers, having lost three straight games, as the Blazers prepare to come to town. The series is at a 3-3 deadlock across the last six meetings, including WKU’s 64-60 victory in the Conference USA tournament last season.

“You go back and look at all those games that we’ve lost, and it’s by a matter of a couple possessions,” Justice said. “It’s not like we’ve lost these games by getting blown out or anything like that. It’s just a matter of one or two possessions every game. So you focus and take those two possessions away, and we’re on top and none of this is being discussed.”

UAB is led by junior guard Jordan Walker, who averages 18 points and four assists per game. Its leading rebounder is the 7-foot big man Trey Jemison, getting seven boards per game. 

The Blazers are one of the best teams in the conference, boasting the top offense in the league. They’re the only team putting up 80-plus points while locking up on the other end with the second-best defense, only giving up 62 points per game. They have a scoring margin of over 18 points per game. 

WKU is now the league leader in field goal percentage, making 47% of its shots, but will run into a UAB defense that suffocates teams into shooting less than 40%. 

This is the first time Middle Tennessee will be playing in Diddle Arena since 2019. WKU is on a four-game winning streak with three of those losses by double digits. This is a different Blue Raiders’ team than years prior. 

“I just think that we just have to keep working on and keep focusing on what we do well,” Hamilton said. “Our focus, sometimes we get off track, sometimes it’s the things we’re doing, but sometimes we look really well. We have really great spurts and all that so we just have to make sure we keep those spurts, keep them going along, keep trusting what coach is telling us to do and then go out there and execute the game plan like we’re supposed to.”

Like the Blazers, MTSU has one of the best defenses in the conference, in third place behind UAB, only giving up 64 points a game. 

The Blue Raiders are led by graduate transfer Josh Jefferson, averaging 13 points a game, shooting 41% while being one of the best free throw shooters in C-USA, shooting 93% from the line. Of the two games this weekend, this should be the one where the Hilltoppers dominate on the boards because no one on the Blue Raiders averages over five rebounds a game. 

In a similar fashion to WKU, MTSU likes getting to the free throw line and are one of the best teams at making them count. The Blue Raiders hit 73% as a team, third in C-USA.

Counting these next two, the last three home games for the Hilltoppers will have been against the top three defenses in the conference. They can gain some advantages using their speed on the fast break and keeping these teams off the boards. 

Protecting the ball will be crucial for all three teams, because every team that will be playing in Diddle this week are the three best teams when it comes to picking pockets and getting steals. 

“We can’t have a lot of live ball turnovers,” Stansbury said. “They’re going to score enough as it is against your set defense. We can’t give them those easy live ball baskets.”

WKU will take on UAB Thursday night in the annual “Black Out” game. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m. on the CBS Sports Network. Following that game, WKU will return to Diddle for a Saturday matinee against Middle Tennessee at 2 p.m. that will be broadcast on PBS and ESPN+. 

Men’s Basketball Reporter Kaden Gaylord-Day can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @_KLG3.