Rick Stansbury won’t answer the question of whether or not his team belongs in the NCAA Tournament. He knows that if his Hilltoppers (22-7, 14-2 Conference USA) win their final two games of the regular season, then three straight in the league tournament, they’ll be in the Big Dance regardless.
But he did add one thing.
“Would you wanna play us right now?”
Western’s second-year coach is confident in the way his squad has put it altogether down the stretch. The Tops, winners of six straight, now have a chance to really make some noise at 7 p.m. Thursday inside a hostile Murphy Center at No. 24 Middle Tennessee.
The Hilltoppers have lost 12 of 14 to their bitter rivals and 6 of 7 in Murfreesboro, Tenn. But perhaps there's no better time than now for them to reverse those fortunes with a team that has shot at least 55 percent in five straight games, won the last six by an average of 17.7 points and the last three by an average margin of 26.3.
“We know we’re going to the best team in the league. Until someone beats ‘em, Middle Tennessee’s the best team in the league,” Stansbury said. “But I know we’ll have a bunch of guys get on that bus Thursday afternoon with one of the most-important things you can take on the road – what is that? Confidence. Confidence this time of year is a very potent thing. And our team has a lot of it.
“They feel good about each other. Those guys on that bench they feel good about their roles they’ve got and couldn’t be a better part of the year to have that feeling right now.”
Western Kentucky is coming off a rather stunning 88-66 win over Old Dominion on Saturday, a victory that halted the Monarchs’ nine-game conference road winning streak. Senior Justin Johnson, after proposing marriage to his long-time girlfriend during pregame festivities, scored 17 in the first half and then gave way to freshman Taveion Hollingsworth who finished with a team-high 20.
As a unit, WKU recorded 18 assists, shot 59.3 percent, had 16 fastbreak points and led for all by 19 seconds in a completely dominant effort.
“When we play like that, we control our own fate,” Johnson said. “When we come prepared – it’s not about what anybody else does, really, at the end of the day. If we come focused, play defense and get stops, it’s about what we do.
“We just gotta continue to focus on ourselves and get better everyday in practice. Mentally, and I think physically, we’re in a great place right now. With everybody in that locker room, everybody has bought in to their roles, they know the guys coming off the bench have been playing with a lot of confidence – and we need those guys.”
Middle Tennessee (23-5, 15-1), the class of Conference USA now three years running, is 34-6 in its last 40 home games. The Blue Raiders have won 10 straight and crept into the top 25 last week.
They also won 66-62 at E.A. Diddle Arena on Jan. 20 behind 28 points from Nick King and 16 points out of Giddy Potts. Middle is a virtual lock to make the NCAA Tournament even if it should it falter in its quest to win the league tournament.
“Until somebody beats ‘em, there’s no question, they’re the best team in the league. One of the better teams in the country. That’s why they’re in the top 25,” Stansbury said. “We’re gonna have to play our best game at Middle Tennessee to have a chance. I got a lot of respect of how good they are. We’ll have to have our best game to have a chance.”
With its 22nd regular-season win of the season Saturday, the 2017-18 Hilltoppers became the first since 2007-08 (24) to reach that mark. The seven-win turnaround from one year to the next was the best for the program since 2007-08 and the 14 conference wins is the most for WKU since the 2008-09 team finished with 15.
None of those wins, however, would top a victory Thursday.
“You wanna make the most of every opportunity that you get, every practice, every game,” WKU senior Darius Thompson said. “When you’re going out there and competing with your brothers you don’t want it to end so you’re gonna go out there and play as hard as you can, give it your all. We don’t want this thing to end – we wanna just keep it going.”
• Western Kentucky now has an RPI of 53, a KenPom ranking of 55, a BPI of 56, a KPI ranking of 62 and a Sagarin ranking of 74.
• The Hilltoppers have outscored their opponents 1,192-854 in the paint this season.
• WKU now ranks fifth nationally with 14.7 fouls committed per game, seventh with 425 total fouls, ninth with a field goal percentage of 50.2, 24th with 685 free throws attempted, 32nd with 482 free throws made, 34th in scoring margin (10.1), 51st with 7.4 steals per game and with 216 steals, 59th in scoring offense (79.6 points per game), 68th in turnover margin (1.8), 87th in field goal percentage defense (42.3 percent) and with 12 turnovers per game and 88th with 349 total turnovers.
• The Hilltoppers also rank 337th (out of 351) nationally with 445 total 3-point attempts, 331st with 5.6 made 3s per game, 323rd in total 3s made (163), 248th with 9.31 offensive rebounds per game and 212th in free-throw shooting (70.4 percent).
• Johnson now ranks 27th nationally with 7.21 defensive rebounds per game, 32nd with 9.4 rebounds per game, 35th with 272 total rebounds and 53rd with 10 double-doubles.
• Coleby ranks 49th nationally with 55 blocks, 52nd with 1.9 blocked shots per game, 67th with nine double-doubles, 91st with 8.1 rebounds per game and with 235 total rebounds and 99th with with 5.72 defensive rebounds per game.
• Thompson ranks 26th nationally with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.8, 44th with 36:12 minutes per game, 55th with 1,050 minutes played, 68th with 143 assists and 75th with 4.9 assists per game.
• Bearden now ranks 58th nationally with 52 steals and 68th with 1.79 steals per game.
• Western Kentucky now leads Conference USA and ranks 70th nationally in attendance having filled E.A. Diddle Arena at 74.32 percent capacity on average.
• Coleby (55) needs three blocks to crack WKU’s top 10 for blocks in a single season.
• Thompson now has 143 assists, the ninth-most assists in a single WKU season. A.J. Slaughter is eighth with 147.
• Johnson (1,548) is now 15th on WKU’s all-time scoring list. A.J. Slaughter is 14th with 1,581.
• Johnson is fifth with 970 career rebounds at WKU. Jim McDaniels is fourth with 1,118.
• Johnson now has 34 career double-doubles, tying Greg Smith for the fifth-most in a WKU career. Chris Marcus is fourth with 38.
• Johnson (485) is now in ninth for free throws attempted in a WKU career. McDaniels is eighth with 514.
• Johnson is ninth in WKU history with 3,455 minutes played. Slaughter is eighth with 3,550.
• Johnson is tied for eighth in WKU history having played 126 career games.
• Hollingsworth (394) needs 19 points to move past Derrick Gordon (412) for the third-most points in a single WKU season by a freshman.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop