As far as home finales go, hard to imagine many shape up to be as big as Saturday’s.
Western Kentucky (21-7, 13-2 Conference USA) hosts Old Dominion (22-5, 13-2 CUSA) at 6 p.m. at a raucous E.A. Diddle Arena for a game with all sorts of implications.
“Saturday’s huge for us,” WKU redshirt-junior guard Lamonte Bearden said. “ODU, they’re looking real good right now. We know they’re a good team, we beat ‘em at their place, but we know we’re gonna have to come with our best Saturday.”
Western has won five straight by an average margin of 16.8 points. Old Dominion owns the nation’s longest active road conference winning streak at nine in a row. Something has to give Saturday.
The Hilltoppers won the year’s first meeting 75-68 in Norfolk, Va., on Jan. 11 in the midst of storming through their first league road trip and announcing to the conference they were a major player in the title race. The Monarchs have reeled off six straight wins and have only lost to WKU and first-place Middle Tennessee in conference play.
Both teams, in all likelihood, have to win the Conference USA tournament next month to get into the NCAA Tournament. But a victory Saturday would greatly increase their respective resumes for a potential at-large bid.
“Old Dominion, it’s very obvious, is probably better than anybody in this league right now, where they’ve been, where they’ve won,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. “They’re a veteran team, they got great guard play, they’re big around that baseline – and they’re good. So we gotta be at our best in there Saturday afternoon to have a chance to win this game.”
Western is fresh off their biggest conference win (in terms of margin of victory) in 17 years to the day, a 93-55 stomping of visiting Charlotte on Thursday. The Tops shot 56 percent in the win and have finished with a field goal percentage of at least 55 percent in four straight games for the first time since at least 1986.
The play of Bearden at point guard coupled with senior Darius Thompson in a shooting guard role has helped WKU’s offense find its form. Freshman Josh Anderson has become the team’s sixth man capable of transforming Western’s attack into a smaller yet quicker and lethal lineup.
Since a 74-63 wake-up call of a loss at Texas San Antonio on Feb. 3, WKU is scoring 87.6 points per game and shooting 55.7 percent from the floor.
“I feel like we’re playing a lot better, just playing hard and with more energy,” said Anderson, who set a new career high of 19 points during Thursday’s win. “I feel like we’re just gonna keep getting better and better as the season goes on.”
The Monarchs, like Western, have balance. Four players average double figures in scoring led by B.J. Stith (14.8 ppg) and Ahmad Caver (14.7 ppg) and ODU has the league’s best scoring defense (62.6 points allowed per game), scoring margin (+12.3), shooting defense (41 percent allowed) and turnover margin (+4.96) and they also pull down a league-high 12 offensive rebounds per game.
To beat a team as good as ODU, the Hilltoppers will have to be close to their very best – and will have to do it as part of the regular-season finale at home.
“I said from Day One I like this team,” Stansbury said. “To put a whole bunch of new pieces together, and for these guys to accept each other as well as they have, you gotta have character for that. The one thing I’ve said from Day One is we may not always play good, but one thing I do know, it’s not a reflection of who these kids are character-wise. I have a great bunch of people. And I mean that. A great bunch of young men.
“As a coach, you just want your kids giving everything they got, every possession. That don’t mean you played perfect, just give me everything you got every possession. You’ll be amazed what effort does and what it overcomes.”
SENIOR DAY FOR A TOPPER TRIO
Thompson, center Dwight Coleby and forward Justin Johnson will be honored before Saturday’s tipoff. The trio has come together for one season to be invaluable to WKU’s success this year.
Coleby, a Kansas transfer, is averaging 12 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game in the best season of his career. Thompson, a transfer from Virginia, leads WKU at 14.9 points per game while averaging 4.8 assists and 4.7 rebounds.
“I’ve had a blast since I’ve been here, since Day One. Just this summer, getting to go to Costa Rica, it’s been fun since Day One,” Thompson said. “The group of guys that we have are a joy to be around every day. It’s not, like, a force to get up and go to practice everyday. I love being around these guys are practicing and competing with ‘em. It’s been a great year.
“Definitely came in thinking we had a chance to be pretty good and we showed that we’re better than what most people expected us to be. Just competing and going out there every day with these guys, I think we have a lot of good basketball left in us.”
Johnson will leave Western Kentucky among the top-15 WKU scorers of all-time and in the top-10 in double-doubles, rebounding, free throws attempts, minutes played and games played.
• Western Kentucky now has an RPI of 62, a BPI of 60, a KenPom ranking of 60, a KPI ranking of 64 and a Sagarin ranking of 79.
• WKU now ranks seventh nationally with 14.9 fouls committed per game, ninth with 416 total fouls, 13th with a field goal percentage of 49.9, 26th with 667 free throws attempted, 32nd with 469 free throws made, 42nd in scoring margin (9.6), 53rd with 7.4 steals per game, 61st with 208 steals, 63rd in scoring offense (79.3 points per game), 72nd in turnover margin (1.7), 81st in field goal percentage defense (42.2 percent), 89th with 341 total turnovers, 94th with 12.2 turnovers per game and 98th in 3-point shooting (36.7 percent).
• The Hilltoppers also rank 338th (out of 351) nationally with 430 total 3-point attempts, 330th with 5.6 made 3s per game, 323rd in total 3s made (158), 239th with 9.46 offensive rebounds per game and 211th in free-throw shooting (70.3 percent).
• Johnson now ranks 28th nationally with 7.07 defensive rebounds per game, 35th with 9.3 rebounds per game, 37th with 261 total rebounds and 62nd with nine double-doubles.
• Coleby ranks 49th nationally with 54 blocks, 51st with 1.93 blocked shots per game, 62nd with nine double-doubles, 89th with 8.1 rebounds per game, 92nd with 227 total rebounds and 98th with with 5.71 defensive rebounds per game.
• Thompson ranks 30th nationally with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.76, 45th with 36:08 minutes per game, 62nd with 1,012 minutes played, 78th with 135 assists and 83rd with 4.8 assists per game.
• Bearden now ranks 69th nationally with 49 steals and 76th with 1.75 steals per game.
• Western Kentucky ranks 75th nationally in attendance having filled E.A. Diddle Arena at 72.24 percent capacity on average, a number that ranks second in Conference USA to Old Dominion (73.21 percent).
• The Hilltoppers have made at least one 3 in 966 straight games.
• Coleby (54) needs four blocks to crack WKU’s top 10 for blocks in a single season.
• Thompson now has 135 assists, the 10th-most assists in a single WKU season. Orlando Mendez-Valdez (ninth) had 140 in 2008-09.
• Johnson (1,529) needs 16 points to move past Steffphon Pettigrew (1,544) for 15th on WKU’s all-time scoring list.
• Johnson is sixth with 959 career rebounds at WKU – Bob Daniels is fifth with 964 and Jim McDaniels is fourth with 1,118.
• Johnson has 33 career double-doubles, one shy of tying Greg Smith for the fifth-most in a WKU career.
• Johnson is tied with Bob Daniels (480) for ninth for free throws attempted in a WKU career. McDaniels is eighth with 514.
• Johnson is ninth in WKU history with 3,420 minutes played. A.J. Slaughter is eighth with 3,550.
• Taveion Hollingsworth (374) needs 13 points to pass Mike Prince (386) for the fourth-most points by a freshman in a single WKU season.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop