Western Kentucky plays its 13th and final nonconference game Friday when it makes the short day trip west to Clarksville, Tenn.
It’s there the Hilltoppers (7-5) will hope to close out that portion of the schedule before beginning their Conference USA run next week. Austin Peay (5-6) is the last hurdle on a slate that has challenged WKU each and every night.
“There’s no question playing this schedule made us better in every way. There hadn’t been no cupcakes,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. “We’ve played great competition, for the most part, every night. We’ve been on the road with some good teams, we’ve been on a neutral court with some good teams – it’s helped us. It’s gave us a lot of confidence."
Western (7-5) is actually stuck in a tough stretch having lost three of their last four, the lone win coming against Indiana State at home Saturday. The 75-72 defeat to Belmont on Tuesday was WKU’s fifth game against a top-100 team in the RPI – an inexact measure but one that gives an idea to the strength of the Tops’ competition.
Eight of the team’s 13 nonconference foes are ranked in the top 200 in the RPI and WKU has a strength of schedule ranked 64th by the site kenpom.com. It’s a stretch that included games with BU, Wisconsin, Southern Methodist, Purdue, Villanova and Missouri State.
Western hasn’t just played that schedule and wilted, either. The team's five defeats are by an average of 4.4 points.
“They’re very much improved,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said Tuesday of the Hilltoppers. “Just look at the teams they’ve beat and played great. Top-30 programs in the country and they belong. Wisconsin’s not there this year, but the other ones are.
“It feels like to me they’re more of a unit, like they have better team chemistry than they’ve had in the past several years, really since we started playing against them (in 2014). Always been a big fan of (WKU guard Darius Thompson). I watched him play a lot in high school, tried to recruit him, and always felt like he has such a mature way about playing the game that I think that really he has a lot to do with keeping their team settled.”
As has been the case in nearly every defeat this season, WKU couldn’t get the key stops it needed Tuesday down the stretch to pull out a close win. The Hilltoppers are now allowing 79.2 points per game in five losses compared to just 64.1 per game in seven wins.
In Tuesday’s loss, Western registered only six steals and turned over Belmont only 11 times – well below the team’s season averages of 7.9 and 16.7, respectively.
“We had zero transition points in the first half and that speaks for itself,” WKU senior forward Justin Johnson said. “It’s a team, when we get out and run and turn people over that’s when we’re at our best. When we get into halftime and have zero transition points, that speaks volumes in our locker room. That’s what we feed off of, energy-wise, is getting steals and getting out and running.”
Austin Peay comes into the meeting fresh off a 75-73 win over visiting Troy on Tuesday, a win secured by a single Dayton Gumm free throw with five seconds to play. Gumm, a freshman guard from South Warren High School, is one of three Bowling Green products on the APSU roster along with redshirt-junior forward Chris Porter-Bunton (Warren Central) and freshman forward Terry Taylor (Bowling Green High School).
Taylor leads the Governors (5-6) with 15.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while Gumm is scoring 12.6 per contest. Austin Peay is 5-1 at home.
“We know it won’t be easy down there,” Stansbury said. “They lost by (seven) at Illinois. Last week took Evansville into overtime – Evansville was 8-2. We know it’ll be a dogfight and you got Christmas (break) facing you. You gotta be able to get back up and understand what you gotta go do before you go home for this break. It won’t be easy.”
• Friday’s matchup between WKU and Austin Peay will be the 55th in a series dating back 1941. The Hilltoppers have won eight straight since 2001 and last lost in Clarksville since 1990.
• Western Kentucky has seven wins before January with three games remaining. The 2012 team won 10, the 2007 team won nine and the 2015 and 2013 teams each won eight.
• Johnson (1,269 career points) is now tied with Roland Shelton for 24th on WKU’s all-time scoring list.
• Western Kentucky has made at least one 3 in 950 straight games.
• WKU goes into the weekend with an RPI of 102 – the loss Tuesday dropped it 35 spots in those ranking.
• The Hilltoppers have a KenPom rating of 94 and a Sagarin rating of 84.
• Johnson ranks 74th nationally with 6.2 defensive rebounds per game, 57th with 103 total rebounds and 77th with 8.6 rebounds per game.
• WKU senior center Dwight Coleby ranks 61st nationally with 1.9 blocked shots per game and is 51st with 22 total blocked shots. Coleby and Johnson are tied for 52nd nationally with four double-doubles.
• WKU redshirt-junior guard Lamonte Bearden is 56th nationally with two steals per game and 43rd with 23 total steals.
• The Hilltoppers rank 12th in college basketball with 14.9 fouls committed per game, 36th in field goal percentage (49.3), 35th in turnover margin (3.9), 53rd with 16.3 turnovers forced per game, 56th with 93 steals and 70th in 3-point field goal percentage (38.3).
• Western also ranks 320th with 183 3s attempted, 312th with 5.8 3-pointers made per game, 285th with 70 3s made, 273rd in defensive rebounds per game (24), 270th with 34 rebounds per game and 219th in free-throw shooting (69.3).
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop