Western Kentucky’s attempt to win a regular-season conference championship for the first time since 2009 was, in truth, an epic failure.
The Hilltoppers (22-9) lost by 18 at No. 24 Middle Tennessee on Thursday – giving the Blue Raiders the outright title – and then folded in a 28-point beatdown at Alabama Birmingham on Saturday. The Thursday loss? Somewhat understandable against a top-25 team on the road.
Saturday’s 101-73 loss at UAB? No silver lining there.
“The last two nights out is not been who we are,” WKU senior Justin Johnson said. “We got beat to 50-50 balls, we got out-toughed on the boards, we got beat on the drive, we got beat in every aspect of the game. I told the guys in the huddle, 'After this one (Saturday), you gotta go take a long hard look in the mirror and you gotta check yourself.’ Including me. I gotta look at myself in the mirror, check myself. I gotta be better for these guys to be better.”
When the dust settled from a disheartening weekend, Western was in third place in the league standings. That finish sends the Tops to Frisco, Texas, where they’ll play with the No. 3 seed beside their name when they take the floor at 9 p.m. Thursday against either UAB (19-12) or Florida Atlantic (12-18).
A win Thursday would send the Tops to the semifinals at 3 p.m. Friday for a matchup with Old Dominion (24-6), North Texas (15-16) or Louisiana Tech (16-15). The tournament championship game is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Saturday on CBS Sports Network.
The 2018 Conference USA tournament bracket pic.twitter.com/ZmEhl98iDy— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) March 4, 2018
“It’s a new season now. It’s a one-game season, we gotta win three games,” WKU coach Stansbury said. “We just gotta play better than we did the last two games. That team last Saturday night at home on senior night with emotion (that beat ODU by 22), what would that team do? Well let’s find three quarters of that team. We don’t need it all. Give us three quarters of it. We need more than half the team we had (Saturday) fighting to go win three games in a row.”
The last week of the regular season put (perhaps momentarily) a damper on Stansbury’s second season in Bowling Green. His team has already won seven more games than his first squad and finished five spots in higher in the league standings.
They’ve also shown signs of being able to compete with almost anyone in the country: They beat Purdue, Southern Methodist and Wright State in the nonconference portion of the year. They swept Marshall (21-10) and ODU. Before Thursday they had shot at least 55 percent from the field in five straight games.
But they’ve also shown serious flaws in losses to Texas San Antonio, Ohio and Missouri State. Concerning to Stansbury was his teams lack of fight and toughness on the final day of the regular season.
“I’ll take all the responsibilities, it’s all me, I have no issues with that,” he said. “But, I don’t play that game. When you’re between that line, you gotta show some fight and some grit and some toughness. Didn’t have enough of that (Saturday).
“We gotta be grittier than we’ve been these last two games. How do we respond from these two games? That’s the biggest thing. I keep things in perspective that probably nobody woulda beat Middle last Thursday night. We should’ve played better than we did. (Saturday)? I was more disappointed (Saturday) than I was Thursday night. I just didn’t feel like we had that fight (Saturday) that you gotta have. We kinda took it and we kept taking it – that’s the part I don’t like. That’s not who I am. I can take ‘L’s. I’ve had plenty of ‘L’s in my time. If I’m gonna get an ‘L’ I’m gonna get it fighting. I’m gonna go down fighting. I don’t think we had that (Saturday).”
Western will enter the Conference USA tournament, played at the Ford Center at The Star, as the league’s best shooting team (49.8 percent) and second-best scoring team (78.8 points per game). Conversely, the Tops are susceptible to the 3 (allowing opponents to make 36.2 percent) and have missed nearly 30 percent of their free throws.
Next week's event is the last chance for the veteran Johnson, who needs 12 rebounds to reach 1,000 for his career, to make the NCAA Tournament. Seniors Darius Thompson (12 points, 4-for-17 shooting, four turnovers and three assists his last two games) and Dwight Coleby, who have been to the Big Dance with Virginia and Kansas, respectively, need to turn their game up to another level.
Taveion Hollingsworth is 51 points shy of becoming the highest scoring freshman in WKU history and redshirt-junior guard Lamonte Bearden, who averaged 20.5 points – but just three assists per game – in the two losses last week, is charged with continuing to facilitate the offense.
And of course Western’s limited bench of Josh Anderson, Jake Ohmer, Marek Nelson and Moustapha Diagne has to contribute as much as possible.
“We’re just sitting there in the locker room and no one’s mad at each other,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of one of those things that everybody’s just like, ‘What’s going on?’ We have to talk to each other, talk it out. Everybody has to check each other.
“Some guys, you gotta tell ‘em some things they don’t wanna hear, but that’s what good teams do. You see it every day in the NBA. You see LeBron (James) and those guys – teammates fight sometimes. You tell ‘em some things you don’t wanna hear. At the end of the day it makes everybody around you better because you need to hear it sometimes – including me. We gotta get this thing fixed before next week because, like I said, it’s one-and-done.”
The Hilltoppers are 3-3 in six Conference USA tournament games since joining the league in 2014 and have yet to play in the event’s tournament championship. The program is seeking its first conference tourney title since 2013 when it won the Sun Belt Conference as the No. 6 seed.
Stansbury has a 16-13 record in conference tournament games during his long coaching career.
“It’s real simple. There’s no magic pills. There’s no magic dust this time of year,” Stansbury. “The biggest thing to do is get that mirror, look in that mirror. Because that hadn’t been us. We got our mouth busted Thursday night. Well how do you respond to that? That’s what I was looking for (Saturday). How do we respond to Thursday night? It’s very evident we didn’t respond very well. You gotta get yourself back up off that mat now. We got knocked down twice. How do we respond to the next fight? That’s when you gotta question yourself and look yourself in the mirror. There’s no magic you got this time of year.
“We’ll be playing the winner of UAB and Florida Atlantic and most likely we’ll get UAB. You beat UAB you get Old Dominion. You beat Old Dominion you get Middle. So we got an opportunity at all three of the top teams.”
• Western Kentucky’s third-place finish is its highest in league play since the 2013-14 team finished second in the Sun Belt Conference’s East Division.
• WKU’s 22 regular-season wins were the most since the 2007-08 squad won 24.
• Western Kentucky has an RPI of 53,a KPI ranking of 65, a BPI of 67, a KenPom ranking of 68 and a Sagarin ranking of 85.
• WKU now ranks fifth nationally with 14.6 fouls committed per game, eighth with 453 total fouls, 13th with a field goal percentage of 49.8, 29th with 723 free throws attempted, 32nd with 508 free throws made, 52nd in scoring margin (7.9), 53rd with 228 steals, 61st in scoring offense (78.8 points per game), 54th with 7.4 steals per game, 78th in turnover margin (1.5), 93rd with 12.1 turnovers per game and 98th with 374 total turnovers.
• The Hilltoppers also rank 338th (out of 351) nationally with 477 total 3-point attempts, 328th with 5.5 made 3s per game, 325th in total 3s made (175), 237th with 9.48 offensive rebounds per game and 224th in free-throw shooting (70.3 percent).
• Johnson now ranks 26th nationally with 7.13 defensive rebounds per game, 29th with 290 total rebounds, 33rd with 9.4 rebounds per game and 50th with 10 double-doubles.
• Coleby ranks 53rd nationally with 58 blocks, 56th with 1.87 blocked shots per game, 73rd with nine double-doubles and 98th with 245 total rebounds.
• Thompson ranks 37th nationally with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.65, 54th with 35:56 minutes per game, 51st with 1,114 minutes played, 84th with 146 assists and 92nd with 4.6 assists per game.
• Bearden now ranks 57th nationally with 56 steals and 61st with 1.81 steals per game.
• The Hilltoppers have outscored their opponents 1,224-886 in the paint this season.
• Coleby (58) now has the ninth-most blocks in a single WKU season. Jeremy Evans is eighth with 61.
• Thompson has 146 assists, the ninth-most assists in a single WKU season. A.J. Slaughter is eighth with 147.
• Johnson (1,580) is 15th on WKU’s all-time scoring list. A.J. Slaughter is 14th with 1,581 career points and George Fant is 13th with 1,621.
• Johnson is fifth with 988 career rebounds at WKU. Jim McDaniels is fourth with 1,118.
• Johnson is now seventh in WKU history with 128 games played as a Hilltopper. George Fant is sixth with 129.
• Johnson now has 35 career double-doubles, the fifth-most in a WKU career. Chris Marcus is fourth with 38.
• Johnson (492) is ninth for free throws attempted in a WKU career. McDaniels is eighth with 514.
• Johnson is ninth in WKU history with 3,252 minutes played. Slaughter is eighth with 3,550.
• Hollingsworth (411) needs two 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