Hilltoppers begin league play with stiff test from Tech

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After seven weeks and 13 games (well, technically eight weeks and 16 games if you include the exhibition season), Western Kentucky is faced with the new challenge of starting league play at 7 p.m. Thursday when Louisiana Tech comes calling.

The Hilltoppers (8-5) were picked to finish sixth in the Conference USA's preseason poll. That would be their highest finish since their first year in the league in 2014-15 when a 12-6 mark tied them with Alabama Birmingham for fourth place.

Western is 32-28 against CUSA competition in three seasons.

“Everyone talks about you wanna be at your best when you go into conference play, try to hit that stride,” WKU senior Justin Johnson said. “Going into conference play I try to instill in these young guys and the older guys that’s been through it, it’s a new season. It’s a whole new season. You’re zero and zero going into conference play.

“We’ve had some good wins before, but conference play you’re zero and zero, it’s a whole new meaning of games because what of what it stands for and what it means trying to get to the tournament. We gotta be ready to play more than ever starting this zero and zero season.”

As the calendar approaches January, WKU begins conference play still void of two players in freshman guard Josh Anderson and redshirt-sophomore forward Moustapha Diagne. Neither player was cleared this week and Thursday’s game will be the 14th each has missed this season.

Stansbury and squad will have to forge ahead still with just eight active players – a facet that hasn’t been too detrimental to this point, but one that could be during the league’s Thursday-Saturday weekly rotation.

“Our concerns are kinda where they’ve been from Day One,” Stansbury said. “My concerns don’t get changed, they’re not gonna cancel that Saturday game, they’re not gonna postpone it. It’s where it is with our team. I have no updates on (Anderson and Diagne).

“We just gotta keep playing as we’ve been playing. We’ve played three games in a row back-to-back-to-back.”

Diagne and Jared Savage, a transfer ineligible this season, traveled on their own Friday to watch WKU beat Austin Peay 72-55. The Tops then took two days off before returning to campus Tuesday to start preparing for the next phase of the season.

Defense continued to prove the key for Western in that game as it has all season. In eight wins, WKU is allowing just 63 points per game compared to surrendering 79.2 per game in five defeats.

“We’ve gave up too many 3s,” Stansbury said of Western's defense. His team ranks 235th nationally in allowing the opponent to shoot 35.8 percent from distance. “Some of those 3s are my fault, just trying to lengthen the game some, trying to get to the finish line, trying to run that clock, playing some zone maybe when I really wouldn’t naturally play it.

“When you change defenses a lot, that’s gonna happen some – you’re gonna give up some things.”

Louisiana Tech started the season 5-0 before losing 77-74 at Alabama in late November. The Bulldogs are 4-3 since, but took a big loss Friday when sophomore guard Jalen Harris, the team’s second-leading scorer at 15.3 points per game, announced he would transfer.

Wins over Alabama State and Fort Wayne gave LTU (9-4) the New Orleans Shootout championship for coach Eric Konkol last weekend. Sophomore senior guard DaQuan Bracey scores 16 points per game to go along with five assists per contest and guard Jacobi Boykins scores 14.1 per night.

“Really good guard play in Bracey and Boykins,” Stansbury said. “Those two guys can score with the best of ‘em in the country – both of ‘em. Absolutely it’s a good opening test.”

Western Kentucky is 8-2 in its last 10 conference openers.

OHMER EXPECTED TO RETURN

Western Kentucky freshman guard Jake Ohmer is expected to play Thursday after missing Friday’s game due to a concussion suffered Dec. 19 against Belmont. Stansbury said Wednesday that Ohmer had passed all the necessary tests to be cleared for Thursday’s game.

Ohmer has played in 12 games and is averaging 9.8 points per game while shooting 35.1 percent from 3 and dishing out 1.3 assists per contest.

NOTES

• Thursday’s matchup between WKU and Tech will be the 32nd in a series dating back to 1928. The Bulldogs have won 7 of 10 since 1999.

• Under Stansbury, WKU is 16-5 at home.

• Western Kentucky has made at least one 3 in 951 straight games.

• WKU’s goes into the weekend with an RPI of 88 and is one of three Conference USA teams in the top 100. Middle Tennessee is at 37 and Old Dominion is 95th.

• The Hilltoppers have a KenPom rating of 84 and a Sagarin rating of 88.

• WKU senior guard Darius Thompson had 21 points, seven assists, six steals and six rebounds in 40 minutes with zero turnovers at Austin Peay. He’s the first player in college basketball since at least 2010 to have that stat line.

• Johnson ranks 67th nationally with 6.2 defensive rebounds per game, 59th with 111 total rebounds and 74th with 8.5 rebounds per game.

• WKU senior center Dwight Coleby ranks 62nd nationally with 1.9 blocked shots per game and is 55th with 24 total blocked shots. Coleby and Johnson are tied for 62nd nationally with four double-doubles each

• WKU redshirt-junior guard Lamonte Bearden is 53rd nationally with two steals per game and 42nd with 26 total steals.

• The Hilltoppers rank 28th in college basketball in field goal percentage (49.9), 37th in turnover margin (3.8) and 106 total steals, 43rd in 8.2 steals per game, 47th with 24 fouls committed per game, 49th with 16.3 turnovers forced per game, 86th with 12.5 turnovers per game and 92nd in 3-point field goal percentage (37.6).

• Western also ranks 329th with 197 3s attempted, 317th with 5.7 3-pointers made per game, 308th with 74 3s made, 273rd with 33.7 rebounds per game, 272nd in defensive rebounds per game (24) and 244th in free-throw shooting (68.3).

• Western Kentucky has eight wins before January with two games remaining. The 2012 team was the last team to win 10 before January.

• Johnson (1,277 career points) needs 16 points to pass Wayne Chapman for 23rd on WKU’s all-time scoring list.

• Johnson needs 48 rebounds to move into the top 10 on WKU’s all-time career rebounding list. Dwight Smith is 10th with 856.

• Freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth is 21 points away from moving past Caden Dickerson (15th; 199) and A.J. Slaughter (14th; 200) for points in a season by a freshman.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop