A college basketball season, as you know, rarely (if ever) comes without twists and turns, bumps and bruises, highs and lows, exhilarating wins which prove a team has it all figured out followed by dumbfounding losses which prove, "this team ain’t no good!"
Western Kentucky can commiserate. And if ever there were a season with storylines galore to that point, 2017-18 has been the gift that keeps on giving to those who cover the program.
The latest talking point: Rick Stansbury’s calculated strategy to deploy a small (relatively speaking) lineup to relieve his Hilltoppers from a mild funk in the short term and create matchup nightmares for opponents in the long term.
“With our ability to spread the floor, we were able to attack that rim off the dribble and not the pass,” the second-year WKU coach said. “Normally we’re throwing it in there on the pass and getting people in foul trouble. We attacked it tonight off the bounce and we got into that double bonus early. We shoot 31 free throws (Saturday against Florida International) the second half, 39 for the game – that’s a huge stat. That’s because we were smaller and attacking that rim.”
Here’s what to watch for over the coming weeks as WKU’s season winds down:
• The Tops will take the floor with their strong senior post players Justin Johnson and Dwight Coleby, defending the paint on one end, forcing their way to the basket (or the foul line via that drive to the basket) on the other end while stockpiling double-doubles. And if the opponent has no answer for that lineup, Western will let it ride.
• Or perhaps you’ll see Coleby or Johnson alone in the paint flanked by four guards – Lamonte Bearden, Darius Thompson, Taveion Hollingsworth and Josh Anderson. All of a sudden Western Kentucky is long, quick, chaotic and, frankly, fun.
“I bet to watch it was a lot more fun,” Thompson said. “Every rebound we get we’re pushing it in transition, going out there and having fun and playing basketball.”
Thompson, you may remember him from such games like Marshall Jan. 6 which included a triple-double, had been averaging 10.2 points in his last six games before scoring 18 on Saturday. He was also shooting 33.3 percent over a three-game stretch.
So on Saturday he moved off the ball, either playing the 2 (shooting guard) or the 3 (small forward) or even, for a few possessions, the 4 (power forward). That’s where he was when he drove the left baseline and jammed a one-handed slam to ignite the crowd.
What's up Darius "Cornrow" Thompson pic.twitter.com/9N21jb0NZg— Dominique Yates (@RealDYates) February 11, 2018
Thompson’s 18 points Saturday also had more to do than just having a fresh, new hairstyle.
“The first half we put him at the 3 spot, and the one thing I saw about him, he was aggressive. He wasn’t making some shots, but he was aggressive. I like that,” Stansbury said. “Even though he was 2-for-6 from the 3-point line, coming into this game, the last five games, what was it? 1-for-17? It was a bad stat. (*editor’s note, Rick: the last seven games Thompson was 3-for-21 from 3).
“It loosened him up. And I thought it loosened a lot of us up, playing quick.”
Thompson’s time to shine was made possible, in part, by the play of Lamonte Bearden. The redshirt-junior has come off the bench the last two games and has been asked to run the point.
And he’s the perfect candidate to do that – as long as his knack for the flair doesn’t take over his responsibility of remaining focused.
“Hadn’t been many guys like (coming off the bench). He’s over there because he don’t like it,” Stansbury said. “That’s what’s made him better. If you do something that they like, they don’t get better. You do something to change his behavior that they don’t like? Gives him a chance to get better. It’s made him better. As long as he’s tuned-in, it’s what we need, and we got him tuned-in right now. I believe that.”
The x-factor in Western’s new-look attack is Josh Anderson, the four-star freshman just 10 games into his college career. He scored 13 points Saturday to go along with a career-high (by far) nine rebounds, two assists and a steal.
Still a novice on the finer points of playing basketball, Anderson’s best asset is to get to the rim – and WKU’s belief is there aren’t many defenders in Conference USA who can get in his way.
“I thought (Anderson) played really well. We got him to play aggressive (Saturday), hopefully we can keep him going,” Thompson said. “It just shows how versatile he is. He had a huge tip-dunk, just gets out in transition and makes plays and we definitely need (Anderson) moving forward.”
Said Stansbury: “(Anderson) gives you something, too, coming off them ball screens, he can attack that rim. You better be able to guard him. He just needs to understand what’s going on around him. Because when he comes off he’s got blinders on. He don’t see nobody anywhere else. But as he comes off and the game slows down a little bit for him and sees where that help is, where to read where those defenders are at, he’ll get better, too.”
Josh Anderson finished with 13 points and 9 rebounds in WKU's win over FIU. I guess this was 2 of the points and 1 of the rebounds... pic.twitter.com/crBqMEe5nl— Dominique Yates (@RealDYates) February 11, 2018
Western Kentucky is one of the best teams in the nation at getting to the free throw line (45th nationally with 577 attempts). Six times this season (including Saturday) the Hilltoppers have shot at least 30 free throws and 16 times they’ve finished with at least 20 attempts.
For much of the season those attempts have come virtue of Johnson and Coleby collecting the ball in the lane, bullying their way to the basket and drawing contact. The Tops believe this new strategy of sending the guards crashing the glass will help produce the same results for their perimeter players.
“We play a little bit faster when we’re out there and it’s not as much clogged up in the lane. I think we do like playing smaller,” Bearden said. “We’re playing faster so their 4 guy is not gonna be able to guard (Thompson) usually. We just try to attack. That’s our goal, to get to the free throw line, shoot more free throws than the other team.”
Moving forward, Stansbury will have to balance which lineup to use when and against whom. Opponents will also begin to adjust and prepare and practice for Western’s two-pronged attack – or try to, anyway.
One would think having an already-dangerous team becoming that much more versatile will be to its benefit in a push for a championship and an NCAA Tournament berth. The (very) early returns were impressive.
If the end results become historic you can look back at this previous weekend as the moment Western Kentucky kicked into another gear.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Redemption Christian Academy senior Dalano Banton on playing in Bowling Green and visiting his future school Western Kentucky: “It was a good environment. I liked the crowd. The crowd was very well. Also, a lot of people coming to watch, a lot of people supporting me, a lot of people I didn’t know.”
MUSICAL PICK OF THE WEEK
Bob Marley would have turned 73 this week and I, like many of you, went through a brief Bob Marley phase in my younger days. And I'm glad I did.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop