After perfect start, Tops get week off before heading to Marshall

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Halfway through the 2017-18 season, Western Kentucky has proved itself to be a pretty good ball club. Now the grind of the Conference USA season begins against some of the league’s better competition.

“We’ve played a good nonconference schedule. We’ve played good people,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said on his team’s next immediate stretch. “We’re gonna go on the road and play some good teams, but we’ve been on the road and played some good teams already in some areas. It’s not gonna be nothing we haven’t experienced yet.

“Some teams at this stage of their schedule, they haven’t been on the road at all. And when they’ve been on the road they hadn’t played no competition. I can’t say that about us. We’ve been to some places."

An 82-66 win Saturday over visiting Southern Mississippi gave the Hilltoppers their 10th win in 15 games this season and made them 2-0 in the league with 16 conference matchups to go. The next three are on the road starting with a trip to Marshall on Saturday.

Western also faces Old Dominion, Alabama Birmingham and Middle Tennessee later this month – three of the conference’s better teams.

“Besides Diddle, Old Dominion’s probably one of the toughest places to play in the conference on the road,” WKU senior forward Justin Johnson said. “We got Marshall first on Saturday – they play a lot like Belmont. They run and shoot a lot of 3s and shoot it well. We got a week to prepare for them and we’ll be ready to go.”

Johnson and his teammates didn’t play their cleanest game of the year Saturday – they turned the ball over 12 times, only recorded two steals and gave up 13 second-chance points. But Western did record 22 assists on 26 made shots, knocked down 12 3-pointers – a season-high – and went 18 of 22 from the line.

That equated to a 16-point win – Western Kentucky’s seventh win by 10 or more points this season.

“We did what we were supposed to do, we were supposed to come out and find a way to win (Saturday),” Stansbury said. “You gotta win when you’re not always at your best mentally. That’s kinda what we did.”

Western Kentucky will also begin the new year unsure the future of freshman guard Josh Anderson and redshirt-sophomore forward Moustapha Diagne. That pair has yet to be cleared by the NCAA after 15 games and a timetable on their eligibility is still a mystery.

Their absence shouldn’t affect the Hilltoppers with just one game next week. But playing two games in three days for much of the rest of the season will continue to be a storyline – although they passed that first such test this weekend.

“It is tough,” Johnson said. “On these Friday preparation days coach has to watch out for what we do in practice and watch guys’ legs to just to save ‘em for the next game.

“But any time you start conference 2-0 it’s a good feeling. (WKU athletic director) Todd Stewart came in the locker room after the game and said it’s the first time we had 10 wins (before January) since 2012, so that’s a good sign, too.”

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop